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The Great Vacation is upon us—and offices are struggling to keep up

After two years of the pandemic, employees are finally cashing in their saved-up PTO days—all at once.

The Great Vacation is upon us—and offices are struggling to keep up
[Photo: JW LTD/Getty Images]

This spring, requests for summer vacation had already started landing in Kate Snyder’s inbox. One, two, three . . . by the time they reached eight, Snyder, the CEO of Piper & Gold, a PR firm in Lansing, Michigan, met with her leadership team. The employees all requested the same week off, she told them, the week of July 4. I guess we’ll work that week, she told them: “I’m martyring myself.” After taking a deeper dive into the time-off requests, she realized that a few of her 14 employees hadn’t requested any time off at all, despite having an unlimited PTO policy. Some of her clients were off that week as well. New plan, she told them: The entire office would close that week. The employees were thrilled—they took lake trips and out-of-state road trips, and one colleague booked two weeks on the Amalfi Coast.

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In the wake of the Great Resignation, we now appear to be in the midst of the Great Vacation. After two years locked up, people are ready to reconnect, with enormous amounts of YOLO, FOMO, and saved up PTO playing a role. In 2020, 63% of people canceled or postponed their vacations, and in 2021, Americans averaged 4.6 days of unclaimed PTO, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Now, they’re feeling flush, and everyone’s rushing to make up for lost time. More than 87% of Americans have vacation plans according to a Destination Analysts survey. AirBnb’s reported summer bookings are a record 30% above pre-pandemic times, and airline flights are absolutely packed.

This has placed employers in an awkward position: Deny employees well-deserved vacations, and they’ll potentially lose staff; approve them, and business could grind to a halt.

“Now we are freed from our Zoom prisons, there is two years of pent-up demand to travel,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry veteran and president of Atmosphere Research Group. There’s a feeling of urgency, he added—who knows if there will be a new coronavirus surge or whether Monkeypox is the new COVID-19? “People are intent on taking advantage of the moment.” 

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The summer travel boom coupled with sky-high oil prices has led to, “some of the highest airfares I’ve seen,” says Harteveldt. May 2022 airfares were 30% higher than May of 2019, and flight prices increased 47% since January 2022.

Harteveldt’s research found that people are prioritizing travel over in-person parties, barhopping, in-store shopping, and live-music events. Vacation planning started early, he says; in February and March, hotels and airlines reported a jump in summer bookings. Some 26% surveyed indicated a high interest in “bucket list trips.” 

That’s playing out at offices, with employees making up for postponed weddings, missed vacations, and other big milestones. At a recent meeting, a client declared they were “finally taking their 40th birthday trip . . . although they’re turning 42,” says Christy Pruitt-Haynes, an HR consultant at the NeuroLeadership Institute, which provides neuroscience-based leadership development. 

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An estimated 2.6 million weddings will be held this year—a 20% increase over 2019. There’s also been a bump in bachelor parties. Liz Hahn, the CEO of Bad Girl Productions, a bachelor planning event company, saw a 420% increase in bookings in May, compared to the same month in 2020. The twist? Many of the grooms are already married. They missed out on a big bachelor party because of COVID, and now they’re having a do-over, she says.

With all of this making up for lost time, summer 2022 has “created a perfect storm of everyone wanting to be away at the same time,” says Pruitt-Haynes. Many of her business clients have already received time-off requests from employees reaching as far out as November 2022. In response, many employers are getting creative, offering flex-time, reduced work weeks, and even giving cash bonuses—as Walmart did last summer—for deferring vacation during peak times. 

Some bosses have pushed back project completion dates and renegotiated deadlines with clients. Others have put their own plans on hold, resigned to covering for junior staff. “Companies are trying to avoid just flat out saying no to vacation requests, because they’re concerned their employees will simply lean into the Great Resignation,” said Pruitt-Haynes. In April, the town clerk for Passadumkeag, Maine, quit after her vacation request was denied. She was so irreplaceable, the town was forced to close to visitors.

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Despite the intense summer vacation rush, a number of companies are actually incentivizing workers to take time off in an effort to mitigate rising burnout. Evernote is a longtime pro-vacay employer: For a decade, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company has long offered unlimited PTO and a $1,000 vacation stipend for employees who book five consecutive days off. But the company upped its game during COVID-19. The company noticed that employees had stopped taking vacation days, explains Susan Stick, the senior vice president of people at Evernote, who says vacation time is important to employee productivity, well-being, and retention. In 2021, just 66% of staff claimed the vacation stipend—before COVID-19, this number hovered around 90%. “Whether you take five days off and redecorate your garage, or you go to Hawaii, you’re eligible,” she says. 

Concerned about burnout, Evernote rolled out a new, quarterly initiative: wellness weekends, a 3-4 day company-wide shutdown. “This helps people decompress,” explains Sticks. “On vacation, the rest of the company keeps going. [whereas] this quiets the noise and the Slacks and the emails.” This approach has been growing in popularity. In 2021, HootSuite, the social media scheduling startup, gave all staffers a fully-paid wellness week off as did Nike, LinkedIn, and others. In 2022, the consulting firm PwC and the dating app Bumble both upped their “reset” week, in which the office is closed, to two weeks a year.

But the flurry of vacations has definitely left some managers dealing with scheduling conflicts, possibly exacerbated by the nature of remote work. “[When] we had a primarily office culture, people were better about asking the person next to them, ‘Are you taking a vacation?’—that kind of thing,” says Ciara Lakhani, chief people officer at Dashlane, a digital password manager startup. The company noticed staff on the same team were booking nonrefundable trips without checking in with each other first. 

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Dashlane’s general policy is not to deny US staff their unlimited PTO, so this was challenging. “We really respect people’s personal lives . . . so we [try] to find a way to accommodate,” says Lakhani. Sometimes this means a slowdown in software development; other times, like with onboarding new employees, someone has to step in, which often results in extra work. To address the issue, managers received coaching on vacation planning policies. “We’ve needed to invest more in explaining to people why they should coordinate with each other,” says Lakhani.

Other companies are trying to introduce little breaks outside of vacation days. In May, Ethena, a 70-person workplace compliance training company that’s used by Netflix and Zendesk, rolled out a new initiative for employees. In addition to 20 days PTO, plus a holiday week, and five summer Fridays, employees will have unlimited half days, available to anyone who completes their work early. They’ll still be “on call,” but it’s a nice time out. “It’s [built] even more of a mutual sense of trust between employees and employer,” says Melanie Naranjo, Ethena’s VP of People. 

Similarly at Piper & Gold, CEO Snyder instituted what she calls “pockets of joy,” to encourage employees to take breathers from work. “You’re in control of your own schedule, as long as you meet your outcomes,” she says. Here’s how it works: If Snyder’s in a good place with her workload or even if she just needs a breather, she Slacks the team: “Hey, popping [out] for a pocket of joy.” She powers down her laptop, slips on outdoor shoes, and tends to her garden for a while. “It feels good to intentionally take that time to restore and reinvigorate,” she says. “I’ve never found that my team isn’t working hard enough; it’s more they’re not taking care of their needs.” 

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Other companies like Xos, an LA-based electric fleet manufacturer, have invested in cross-functional training. Employees are equipped with the skills needed to cover for others; so far, all their project deadlines remain on track, says Jessica Ramirez, the VP of human resources. The big change this year, she says, is a rise in employee requests for unpaid time off—due to exhausting their 15 PTO days. The informal company policy is, if there’s no immediate impact to the team, to allow the extra days, she says: “It’s a great way to encourage morale.” Managers are empowered to address this on a case by case basis, she explains, adding that she expects this elastic approach to time off will continue. “COVID has accelerated and really changed the way businesses and leaders run their departments and their teams,” she says, so fluidity is key.

Still, it’s important to remember that what’s happening this summer is likely temporary, notes Pruitt-Haynes. The volume we’re seeing isn’t normal—summers weren’t always this hectic—and once people have got those travel urges out of their system, everything will even out again, she predicts. It will just take a little time—and a little time off.

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About the author

Zara Stone is a novelist and journalist. Her nonfiction novel, Killer Looks: The Forgotten History of Plastic Surgery in Prisons is out now from Prometheus Books

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