Instill Education’s unlimited leave policy: Modern workplace exploration

As a young startup with limited resources, Instill Education faced the challenge of attracting and retaining talent. We recognised that traditional employee benefits like medical aid and pensions were beyond our means at this stage of our journey. Simultaneously, we acknowledged that the conventional work-life paradigm needed to be reimagined to better support our team. In search of a solution that would align with our budget constraints, we embarked on an innovative path to work-life balance. This transformative journey led us to implement an unlimited leave policy, which has changed our workplace dynamics and enhanced employee well-being.

Labour laws prescribe minimal benefits for leave; we decided to go beyond.  Our policy allows all team members to take all the time to balance their personal and professional commitments; one that puts the individual and their needs at the centre. At the heart of our model is trust. We trust people to make the right decision, we trust people won’t abuse the system. 

Our model, implemented first during the worst of the pandemic across all our teams, has had three benefits:  

1: Enhancing Work-Life Balance:  By empowering our team members to manage their time and personal commitments, we created a flexible environment that respects their need for work-life integration. Parents with children were able to prioritise a sick child that can’t go to school; team members who have lost a family member were able to take the time to grieve and get their family’s affairs in order; team members who struggled through mental wellbeing challenges were able to flexibly manage work pressures and their mental health. This approach has not only fostered an equilibrium between personal and professional lives; but has driven more loyalty, even in difficult times. It also presented a fascinating side-effect: many people, particularly younger team members, took less leave. It required our senior team to be better role models for this policy, and to be more deliberate in coaching team members. 

2: Boosting Productivity and Creativity: Despite initial concerns that unlimited leave might hinder productivity, we have witnessed its positive impact. When our employees have the freedom to take time off as needed, they return to work with renewed energy, motivation and commitment. This heightened well-being translates into increased productivity, improved focus. We can’t prove this, but we believe that it also increased the quality of the work and creativity. 

3: Cultivating a Culture of Collaboration and Trust:  We have always believed that trust is the cornerstone of our culture. With the implementation of the policy, we made a visible commitment to that value. We believe it has nurtured a sense of loyalty, collaboration, and transparency. Team members care for each other as more than just colleagues; they are willing to pull through for each other when one is facing personal challenges. It also fostered a sense of personal responsibility when it comes to work and one’s own wellbeing. 

I can already hear many HR professionals and leaders balking at this idea. We tend to build our “people systems” around worst-case scenarios: those who abuse the system, those who continue underperforming, those who don’t have a sense of ownership for their work. It’s a reflection of our society where trust comes at a premium, where we expect the worst and thus plan for the worst. 

At Instill, the risk-reward equation is asymmetrical and the benefits far outweigh the perceived risks. For every person who abuses the system (we haven’t had any since we launched this programme over three years ago), another 10 or 15 more benefit from it by being more balanced, more productive, more creative, with more ownership of their work. As we grow as a startup, we plan to build on this trust dividend and support our team leaders to learn to have the difficult conversations when there is a breach of that trust. 

In a rapidly evolving modern workplace where the lines between professional and personal lives are increasingly blurred, trust is the most important currency. At Instill Education, we have an unwavering faith in the incredible team members that have already rewarded us with their trust, their career, their day-to-day wellbeing.