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24 Sep 2019

Defining PTO, Collaboratively

By Scott Smith

It was a Friday afternoon at the end of a particularly busy week, at the end of a particularly busy month. Burnout was threatening to rear its tired head. Remaining on my to-do list was to finalize and send an updated PTO policy to the team. I Slacked my partners asking for a quick review of the updates, got the green light, hit send, and went home. To rest. Why did we need a revised PTO policy? Well, we had just hired two new employees, and that policy, which was fine when we were a tiny startup, wasn’t feeling right to us as we graduated to a full-fledged small business. Along with my partners Talie and Becca, I agonized for a bit, made some decisions we thought were wonderful for everyone, patted ourselves on the back, and sent the revised policy to the team. 

A note about how we think about work here at Smith & Connors: We offer salaries and benefits that can compete in the very competitive marketplace of Portland creative agencies, but we also try to offer something that is difficult to create: a reason to come to work beyond compensation. Part of that is that we bring all voices to the table. 

That weekend, we learned quickly that we had not acted in accordance with this principle. Our people were not, shall we say, pleased, with the new policy. The change was intended to show how much we value our team. Through some shifting of holiday and unstructured PTO, we had inadvertently created a plan with no net gain in PTO.

Little rest was had that weekend. Should we try to fix this right away? But soon we realized what had happened: We had changed an important policy without input from the people it would impact. We sent an email to our staff saying that we were going to review the policy, and to hang tight.  

Already in this cautionary tale, you might have read something that surprised you. We got feedback from our staff, right away. It’s important to us that everyone can tell us what they think, as Talie wrote about in her article on The Revolution of Corporate Culture. We encourage our staff to challenge us (with thoughtful rationale) when they disagree with our POV. 

We make most decisions at the agency with team input. So we asked ourselves: Why hadn’t we approached PTO the same way? We had to admit to ourselves (and then to our staff) that we had been afraid people would bolt if we asked their opinions but ultimately couldn’t offer the moon and beyond. We let fear guide us initially and, as it normally does in these situations, it backfired. 

On Monday, we set about getting back on track. We posted a Miro Board where staff could (anonymously, if they so preferred) contribute ideas to a policy change that would help them feel refreshed, valued, and compensated. We asked for suggestions in 5 areas:

Frankly, it was a little scary to open the forum. What if the reality of what we could offer didn’t measure up to the requests, leading to disappointment and discontent? After all, in a 2018 QuickBooks Payroll survey, 43 percent of employees said they plan to change jobs in the next two years, despite high rates of reported job satisfaction. No pressure.

Staff suggestions made our fears seem petty and short-sighted. All were reasonable, creative, thoughtful, and understanding. Of course. Duh. 

We now had data that showed strong support for policies already in place regarding flexible hours and remote work, insurance and 401k offerings, and annual COLA raises (cost of living adjustments based on federal guidelines). We still got rid of summer Fridays (for the moment), but we also came to a broadly agreed-upon net increase of 5 PTO days per year for everyone, with additional days off kicking in after 2 and 4 years of employment, respectively.

Some perks were put into a shortlist we can revisit as revenues rise. The rest were added to our Employee Handbook. We now have an informed PTO policy that considers the perspectives of everyone who helps us make this agency great. Most importantly, we went through a process that created alignment and stronger buy-in. Our biggest management lesson was not to be guided by fear. The best things happen when we are willing to listen and collaborate.

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