In matters of social activism at a corporate level, outdoor companies are often some of the first to throw their hats into the ring. Our industry has a long history of putting people before profits, and that often translates into downright enviable employee perks. Patagonia famously dismisses its workers early if the surf is breaking well near the company's Ventura, California, headquarters. Clif Bar's workers earn a multi-week sabbatical after seven years of employment.

Gearmunk, the digital gear review company behind the upcoming Thin Air trade show, has added to this tradition of generosity with a vacation policy that takes PTO to its literal extreme. At Gearmunk, employees are forced to take two weeks off per year; they have no choice in the matter. On top of that, their email passwords are changed while they're away to prevent working on the go. All messages are forwarded to a colleague who does double-duty to make sure tasks are handled and the vacationing employee returns to inbox zero with nothing to catch up on.

"The whole point of going on vacation is to feel relaxed and amazing," said Erik Boles, Gearmunk's CEO. "If you come back and open up Outlook, and there's that little red number next to your inbox that says 317 new messages, you immediately divorce the vacation relaxation. You're back in high-stress mode and it's like vacation didn't even happen. So we make sure you come back to inbox zero. You can take your device with you if you want. Hell, we don't care. But we're changing your password while you're gone so that you literally cannot check email."

As if that weren't enough, the company also gives each employee an automatic bonus of $5,000 per year that can be used during the two weeks of mandatory leave.

"A couple can take an all-inclusive trip to Jamaica for $2,200 a week, not including airfare. That's where we came up with giving $2,500 a week for two weeks," Boles said. "We don't want people to worry if they have the financial means to take a break."

The policy is especially notable this year, as employee vacation requests have fallen dramatically since the start of the pandemic, according to numbers collected by the HR software company Zenefits. Across 3,000 companies tracked by Zenefits, 63,000 requests were submitted for vacation time in April and May of this year. Last year, 120,000 requests came through for the same time period.

Other data, including statistics collected by the employee scheduling app TSheets, suggests that a mandatory time-off policy might be what Americans require more broadly to balance work and life in a healthy way. The numbers from a large TSheets survey last year indicated that 61 percent of employees left unused PTO on the table in 2018, amounting to an average monetary loss of $1,800 per person (or, seen another way, $1,800 per person in free work donated to employers).

In addition to the PTO, Gearmunk also designates every Friday as a free day to focus on stress-reducing housekeeping tasks like cleaning up sales pipelines, purging inboxes, and other tasks that improve productivity by giving employees a sense of control over their workflows.

"In the end, it's all about the success and happiness of the customer," Boles said. "Customer happiness comes from employee happiness. If you're creating stress inside your environment, it trickles down to the customer. It's that simple."

Of course, it's important to note that Gearmunk is still a very small company, with just seven employees. But Boles is confident that he can scale these policies out as the business grows. The trick, he said, is to build the company using only money from investors who understand the bottom-line value of such generosity. 

"I've had conversations with investors who say, flat out, 'I just don't get it. This doesn't make fiscal sense.' To them, we have a simple response: We don't want your money. No hard feelings, but we're going with someone else."

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