Are You Ready for a Summer PTO Exodus?

Tracy Cote, People Ops Advisor to Zenefits
May 12, 2021

Since traveling is now safer, how do you manage many employees wanting to take their built-up PTO simultaneously? On this episode of PIVOT, Tracy Cote shares how to balance encouraging employees to use well-deserved vacation time and everyone taking it all at once.

Now that traveling is safer, how will you handle many employees who want to take their built-up PTO simultaneously? According to Tracy Cote, to prevent employee burnout or an empty office this summer, people managers need to begin strategizing for the wave of PTO requests now.

On this episode of PIVOT, the People Ops Advisor to Zenefits Tracy Cote discusses strategies for managing vacation time as an organization while still empowering your employees to unplug and unwind.

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [00:00-04:31] – How to manage a vacation season with built-up PTO
  • [04:32-07:29] – When and how to encourage people to take a vacation
  • [07:30-11:17] – Vacation management planning strategies
  • [11:18-13:55] – How to check-in on your employees’ mental health

After you listen: 

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POPS Star Bio

Tracy Cote, Chief People Officer at Zenefits, has 20 years of experience in people and HR leadership roles at companies of all sizes. She also enjoyed a gig educating aspiring HR professionals as a professor at San Francisco State University. But it was during one of her first jobs at a local pizza parlor that Tracy developed a passion for small businesses and the symbiotic relationship between “mom and pops” and the communities they serve. When she’s not leading global people to experience programs at Zenefits, Tracy enjoys making her own skincare products using natural ingredients.


Tracy: You shouldn’t have all of this vacation just piling up on your books because it’s a liability to the business and you probably don’t want that anyway. And… it’s also terrible for people’s mental health and well-being to just work all the time and never take a break


Didi: It’s the People Ops Podcast from Zenefits. The only show dedicated to small businesses, sharing stories of pivotal people moments. I’m your host Didi D’Errico. On this episode, Tracy Cote is back to talk about how to ensure healthy breaks for your team without breaking your business. Since having been on the show last, Tracy has taken on a new role as the People Ops Advisor at Zenefits and coauthor of our upcoming Book People Operations.

Getting back to the topic at hand, what happens when team members don’t use their paid time off? We’ll explore some fresh thinking on how to diffuse pressure after a year of the pandemic. Pay attention to Tracy’s insights on how employees think about taking time off and what impact it has on burnout.

Tracy: So many people have just not used their vacation time because there’s nowhere to go for most of us, and escape might be something different. I think a lot of us are rethinking, what does an escape look like, and can it be just an escape, really a staycation to my backyard or someplace really close to my house?

A lot of people are renting vacation homes to stay in for a week or two just to get away, but not to get on a plane, not to go really far. I think this has been a huge shift for how people think about the holiday and not everyone has embraced it. I think that’s the problem is a lot of people aren’t actually using that vacation time.

Didi: As we jump into the conversation, here’s Tracy sharing how small businesses can prepare for vacation season.

Tracy: Let’s anticipate the fact that everybody’s going to probably ask for their holiday time more or less all at once, or at least it’s going to get crammed into a pretty compressed timeframe. So that’s going to be a challenge that we have to figure out how to get in front of. In the past, people’s vacations would probably get more or less spread out over the course of the year.

Maybe people with kids there, their spring breaks were at different times. You’ve got people who celebrate different religious holidays. So things just naturally get a little bit staggered, even though they are sort of centered around certain seasons. I think now what’s happening is people are hoarding their vacation time, waiting for when it’s safe to go do X, Y, or Z, whatever it is they’re going to go do.

As soon as, I think, the veil has been lifted and everybody feels like most of us are vaccinated, we can go places. Everybody’s going to be writing that vacation time-off request and managers are going to get kind of bombarded with things all at once. So I think definitely getting in front of that by talking to your teams about that as soon as possible, trying to anticipate that from happening, trying to get people to commit as much as humanly possible ahead of time to when they want to take their weeks or days off so you can coordinate ahead of time. It’s going to be really important, maybe a little hard to do realistically, but the sooner you can get in front of it, you know, the better.

What would 

Didi: you say is worse for your business? The potential of a mass exodus, everybody wanting the month of July off, or mass burnout from not taking the time 

Tracy: off. There’s a couple of things that play here when, from a business perspective, it’s actually just not good to accrue all that time on your books, right?

Like full stop. You shouldn’t have all of this vacation just piling up on your books because it’s a liability to the business and you probably don’t want that anyway. And… it’s also terrible for people’s mental health and well-being to just work all the time and never take a break. I think the challenge for a lot of us is, you know, we’re, we’re sitting at home here, I am in my house, and if I take a vacation, if I don’t have anywhere to go, then it doesn’t feel much like a vacation. So work and vacation the lines get very, very blurred. So, it really is important, I think, when you have people take time off to actually take the time off to disconnect, to unplug. Whatever you’re doing, whether you go somewhere or whether you don’t unplug and just do whatever you need to do.

Managers have to be really good about enforcing that. I think it’s up to the Pop’s professional to help encourage that balance happens. Yeah, let’s 

Didi: talk a little bit about what should you be counseling your managers to look for to make sure that you’re really tuning in on people that really do need the time off.

Tracy: Well, you know, a couple of things. I think if you’re doing regular check-ins with your people, you know what their baseline is. So you know what they’re like, and you know, when they start to kind of get a little bit edgy, they might get a little more short in meetings or people act out of character. They act out of the norm for themselves.

They make a little snippier in their responses, things that just show that the stress is bubbling to the surface. As a manager, it’s up to you to keep that pulse on your people. And as you’re, you know, the people partner, it’s your, it’s also your job to help do that. When people are getting to that point, I think it’s time to insist that someone may be take, even if it’s just a long weekend, a three or four day weekend. That can do wonders to reset somebody’s mental health.

If you really let them unplug and take time off, I’ve done that several times this year with several people on my own team. They’ll come back refreshed, and then they’ll say, you know, this, I needed that. Like, people don’t even know sometimes that they need it, but they do. So I think sometimes as the manager or pops partner, you know, it’s up to you to help them identify that.

I think that’s a really 

Didi: great point about not necessarily knowing they needing it and making sure that they can take it. I had a conversation a week or so ago with a woman who wrote a book on calming the chaos. And she talks about mental wellbeing of your team and some of the things that you might be doing as a manager, unknowingly or unthinkingly, like sending the 10 o’clock email or doing things that just make it seem like you’re setting a tone for everybody else.

It just happened to be you put your kids to bed and you sent out an email, but think about it twice so you’re not sending this tone that’s like, Oh my gosh, we have to be on 24/7. And I think that piece of the tone you said is important and how you take the projects off their lap for a long weekend or whatever in a meaningful way, too, is, is interesting to think 

Tracy: about.

Well, I also would just jump in and add one more thing. I think there’s so much stress surrounding people right now that is maybe nothing to do with work. Everybody’s worried about the pandemic. They’re worried about travel. They’re worried about the economy. They’re worried about the housing market.

They’re worried about, maybe somebody in their family has been impacted by COVID or something else because life goes on and things are happening all over the place. The kids are stressed. There’s so many environmental stressors right now there, some of which are just completely beyond our control and some of which, you know, maybe we have some control over.

If you feel like your people are stressed, I think take work out of the equation for a few days and see if that helps, like don’t make work part of the stressor at least and give them a minute to clear their head. So for me, that’s part of it. It’s also acknowledging there is a whole lot going on in the world right now.

In the best of cases, most of us would be a little stressed out about some of it. Let’s take that aside for a minute and take work out of the equation and say, let’s make sure this whatever stressing out isn’t about work at least. 

Didi: That’s such an important point. What are some of the things, some of the kinds of solutions that you’re thinking about, because it’s not the same old kind of year, and it’s not the same old chronic situation, but maybe some creative ways to color outside the box of paying attention to that, what that vacation management planning can look like. 

Tracy: There’s no one size fits all here. I think it is highly dependent upon your business, your team makeup, but some things you could think about to think outside of the box would be maybe sabbaticals. So maybe encouraging people to chunk all that time together.

Get that scheduled appropriately and let them take a month off if they need it. And some companies, bigger companies tend to do this – a little harder for a smaller company – but there might be a way to make that happen for maybe two weeks sabbaticals or something. You could pay out some of the vacations.

Some people might appreciate the financial infusion of cash as a bonus almost. The tricky part there is people really do need the time. So it’d be careful about how much you offer to do that, but it does get it off your books. I would just make sure that people can’t cash out all of it.  Maybe some of it, if they’ve accrued a lot of it. You can write a policy insisting a certain amount of vacation time gets used throughout the year. That makes sure people take their time. And I actually think that’s a good idea for a lot of reasons to make sure people take their time. You can do rolling department vacations. So this department’s out this week, this department’s out that week – so the business keeps running. The lights are still on, but maybe different teams kind of take turns taking their week or week and a half or whatever it is off the nicest thing to do, but maybe tough for your business, just depending it’s just do a shutdown and let everybody take it at once.

The best vacation that you can have is the vacation when everybody else is on vacation, because nobody’s going to bother you. The challenge there is what if you have some people who don’t have the accrued vacation time, what do you do about them? Do you not pay them? Do you let them work? Like, do you just give them a little extra?

So there are individual questions to solve for that. Practically speaking, if nothing else, you do have to get people to start putting things on the calendar now, so you can orchestrate it. Another couple ideas was a summer Fridays. So I used to work in the advertising industry and that was definitely a thing.

Was, do you either take Fridays off or you cut people loose at noon, but part of that is their vacation time. So it helps everybody. If there’s too many people out, you know, maybe you just consider bringing in a temp to cover, recognizing this has been a tough year. People need the time. Let them take it.

And if you can bring in a temp to cover them, it costs you a little bit extra, but it might be worth it because then you don’t lose your people to burn out or to frustration or something else. And again, it’s just, no one is the answer. Lots of ideas, brainstorm with your people and your team to figure out what’s going to really work for your business.

Didi: I had a conversation with one of our customers a few months ago. She talked about the fact that she does a regular pulse of her team on benefits in general. And one of them was about time off and she had been thinking about doing what has been called unlimited or, you know, flexible time off program for her advertising agency. When they got together and she talked to her team, they all said, man, I don’t need that. What I rather have is all of us off at the same time for one week at Christmas and that would make a world of difference. So, a huge point is to don’t guess, ask, right, check in with your team, what really works for them and being listened to, maybe it takes just one little small level of stress off the shoulder already, to know that somebody’s caring enough to think about what’s going to make the difference for 


Tracy: Yeah, I think it’s motivating for your people to be part of the solution. So don’t feel like you have to do this all on your own. You can do a survey, you could do focus groups. You could, if you have employee affinity groups, whatever, depending on how big your business is, whenever you have get a group of people in a room and talk through it and have them help you solve the problem.

I know that you’ve 

Didi: sprinkled a little bit of these ideas into the conversation, but we always tried to talk about a good example that people can get their heads around and pivotal people moment, if you will, in terms of what would work well, what have you tried? That’s worked well this year, as you’ve looked at your staff or the broader organizational staff to really help make that balance between helping your people decompress and keeping your business going.


Tracy: I think the sort of the company-wide thing we did this year that helped with this was we moved our annual performance process to a monthly conversation, like a pretty formal monthly conversation to make sure managers were talking to their employees at least on a monthly basis. Now you might think, that’s crazy, everybody does that, but it’s always about the tactical and the work.

The point of this conversation was really to check in on the mental health and wellbeing, as well as checking on your goals and progress. And when you connect with people on a personal level like that, you tend to find out a little bit more about how they’re doing. And so I personally do that with my team as well.

What I found was I had some people who were pretty stressed out and getting a little edgy.  I basically insisted that they take some vacation time here and there throughout the year when I felt like they were just getting to that point. I don’t think it was all work-related stress, but taking work out of the equation certainly helped them come back, feeling re-energized and better.

So if you can un-overwhelm them a little bit by taking one thing off of their plate, by giving them a little time off and not only the freedom to do it, but encouraging them to do it, as their boss, to say, I want you to do this. That means a lot. And then just following through and not bothering them while they were out.

That’s the other shell and tricky part. 

Didi: As you’re looking, we are now in summer coming down the pike, a lot of hopeful optimism. Thinking that the summer is going to be maybe opening up. When would you say companies with or without people ops people ought to really be thinking about meaningful time off options?

Tracy: I think with 30% of the population in the U.S. now fully vaccinated, assuming that pace continues, yeah, I would guess by June, people are going to start wanting to take time off. And I think that big hits are going to come in July, August, and maybe September for some people. But if you’ve got kids, you want to get this done in July and August.

So that’s going to be, I think, really big months for people wanting to take some holiday time, probably. Figuring out how to get ahead of that pretty soon, there’s some urgency here to sort of solving this problem. So 

Didi: just a wrap up question for you. What are you dreaming about for your vacation? 

Tracy: I have a reservation for a hotel in Maui that I love for July.

I am such a statistic. I knew whether or not we go, it depends on how things are and what happens, but I am very optimistic that we’ll be able to make that trip in July. I’m hoping as long as everybody doesn’t ask for time off at the same time.

Didi: I’m Didi and this was Pivot. If you want more detail on this topic, check out, where we also include data on this brand new research about time off, where it’s been piling up and how people might be using it now that the world is opening back up. We also have a link to pre-order our brand new people operations book, where you can order a copy for yourself or your team. Also, if you have questions you want us to answer on our show, check out the link in our show notes below. We’ll get it covered.


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