VTO: Volunteer Time Off and Voluntary Time Off

Andrew Buck October 20, 2021

Like PTO, VTO is a term that may come up when you’re setting up your HR policies and leave management processes. 

The VTO acronym can have two meanings with completely different considerations and policy requirements. In this article, we will explain both in detail. 

We’ll cover what they mean, why companies offer them, and whether it might be a good idea for your business.

What Does VTO Mean?

In the context of HR, VTO can have two meanings – volunteer time off, or voluntary time off. 

VTO: Volunteer Time Off

Volunteer time off is a type of leave when your employees take time away from work to volunteer at a charity or organization in your community. 

The vital thing to note is that this isn’t the case where one of your employees decides to volunteer on their own. That would fall under personal leave or maybe even a sabbatical. 

Volunteer time off means an employee is volunteering on behalf of the company. So, there are quite a few things to factor in when approving VTO, or creating a VTO policy, as we will discuss in further detail below.

VTO: Voluntary Time Off

Voluntary time off is an HR tool that is used in companies that have to manage a rapidly changing workload in an efficient manner. 

When the workload shifts to the point where there is surplus staffing, some employees are given the option to take unpaid time off.

This type of VTO can’t count towards the employee’s annual vacation (i.e. the time off should not be counted as a vacation day taken), and there can be no negative consequences to their employment status.

Now that we’ve briefly covered what both types of VTO mean, the rest of the article will delve deeper into each and answer the FAQs about these leave types.

Further Reading: all the leave types you should consider as part of your company’s leave policy.

How Does Volunteer Time Off Work?

Volunteer time off is when your employees take time away from their regular tasks to volunteer on the company’s behalf.

As always, if you offer this type of VTO, then you’ll want to make sure that you clearly state the guidelines in your time off policy.

Is Volunteer Time Off Paid?

Yes, volunteer time off is typically paid time off. You’re still paying your employees, but instead of working for you, they’re dedicating their time to charitable causes. 

You can think about it like donating skills, labor, and human resources to worthy causes. 

However, there are no legal requirements for employers to pay employees for volunteer time off, so in the end this comes down to your company’s VTO policy.

Why Volunteer Time Off Can Benefit the Business

Offering VTO (volunteer time off) benefits your business in several indirect ways, even if it might seem like an expense that provides zero potential ROI.

Here’s how:

Corporate social responsibility (CSR)

VTO can be the perfect opportunity to build your company’s social footprint. 

Donating your employee’s skills and time can have a significant impact on the lives of the less fortunate in your community. 

Brand image

Not only is it good for the community, but a VTO program will benefit your business as well. 

It will create a positive for your brand in your community, and potentially, future partners, customers, or employees. 

Businesses with a positive brand image perform better in the long run, whether in hiring new talent, or how they attract business from socially-conscious customers.

Nurturing a positive work culture

Sending a couple of your employees off to a local charity or non-profit to work together and help improve people’s lives is probably the best team-building exercise out there. 

They’re solving problems together, working towards a worthy cause, and getting to know each other better outside of the workplace in a fun and rewarding way. 

These types of experiences can build and develop team cohesion and reduce employee turnover for the business.

Things to Consider for Your Volunteer Time Off Policy

Volunteer time off may sound great, but you need to carefully consider the following factors to help your employees get the most out of it, and to avoid any inadvertent consequences for the business.

Approved organizations and causes

With VTO, your employees are still representing the company. So, you may want to create a list of approved charities and organizations that align with your company’s mission and values.

Your primary audience

One thing to consider is who is your business’s prime target audience? What are their values? 

Would they react positively if they know the types of causes you’re supporting? 

Your company’s mission

You’ll want to make sure that the organizations you choose to partner with aren’t in conflict with your mission. 

This could be applicable in case you decide to support causes that are political in nature.

VTO leave management

Last but certainly not least, you must have a leave management system in place to approve VTO requests. 

If employees want to request leave to serve at an approved organization on behalf of the company, they should submit a leave request to HR. 

And approval should be based on maintaining adequate staffing for optimal team productivity.

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How Does Voluntary Time Off Work?

Let’s say you manage a fulfillment center and you expect to process a certain number of orders each week, and you’ve hired staff accordingly. 

But something unexpected happens with the manufacturer, and now a big batch of products won’t be making it to your fulfillment center for another three weeks. 

So now, you’re left with more staffing than necessary for three weeks. And three weeks worth of unproductive wages. 

You could use voluntary time off in this situation. You offer some of your employees to voluntarily take time off to focus on their personal lives, without pay. Or perhaps you offer to let them do half shifts instead of full days. 

Some employees might take you up on the offer. They get to keep their job, their benefits, and their regular vacation days. 

And they also get some free time (with no pay or reduced pay) to focus on their wellness and social obligations.

Why Do Companies Offer Voluntary Time Off?

Companies offer VTO to increase efficiency, flexibility, and to reduce cost and waste. 

No business wants to continually pay more in wages than there is need for productive work. With businesses that have quick shifts in labor requirements, this could often become an issue.

VTO is an HR tool that allows businesses to adjust staffing as needed.

What are Some Drawbacks of Voluntary Time Off?

If not managed carefully, voluntary time off can lead to a mismatch between staffing and workload the other way around as well. 

If too many employees take voluntary time, and then your workload increases all of a sudden, then you could be left in a bind. 

So, be sure to manage VTO leave in a way that you leave some room for unexpected increase in workload. An HR leave management system could be the ideal solution here. 

The other potential drawback is that it might create a perception of unfairness among your staff. 

If they feel like they’re pressured to take time off so that business can save money, they might look for work elsewhere and create a perpetual cycle of employee turnover.

Is Voluntary Time Off Ethical?

As long as it is done in good faith, and the time off is really voluntary on behalf of your employee, then there is no reason why VTO wouldn’t be ethical.

For example, you might have students working for you that could use the extra time off to focus on school. By offering them VTO, you can reduce costs when needed, and they can further their studies. It’s a win-win.

But the problem comes when companies pressure employees into accepting “voluntary” time off. In these cases, the company presents it as a choice, but the suggestion is that employees who don’t accept will face repercussions.

You get a situation where employees had the impression they would get a certain number of hours each week, and may be left in a position where they will make less money, and might have already paid out of pocket for additional expenses like transportation and childcare.

Voluntary Time Off at Amazon

One of the prominent stories that highlight VTO in a negative way is how this process is allegedly used at Amazon warehouses. 

They have a system set up where employees get system alerts (email, text, etc.) when there is an opportunity for voluntary time off. And many employees grab the VTO slots as soon as they can. 

But for others, the situation can apparently get a bit murky, although Amazon claims that it is strictly up to the employees to accept the VTO opportunities or not. 

But according to Gizmodo, they’ve spoken to Amazon employees who tell a different story. 

Some Amazon associates claim that although in theory, the VTO is completely optional, in practice it can come across differently. 

Workers are indirectly coerced into accepting the VTO even if they really don’t want to take the time off. The purpose of course is to keep costs at a minimum.

If the workers refuse VTO, then they can face consequences like being shifted to jobs they’re not trained for, or having to deal with a hostile work environment.

This is the type of VTO program that is unethical and should be avoided by businesses who want to do it the right way.

Summing Up: Should You Offer VTO In Your Business?

Let’s talk about both types of VTO policy and whether offering VTO (either one) might make sense in your business.

Is Volunteer Time Off a Good Idea for Your Business?

A lot of businesses only thing one step ahead in regards to expenses and ROI. So letting employees take time off to participate in a non-profit or charity, and making this paid time off, may see like a strange idea.

Yet positive social practices may have big benefits for your company over time, and help your company’s standing a positive force in the community. So a VTO policy wherein workers can take paid time off to support the community may be a great idea.

What About Voluntary Time Off?

If your need for labor and staffing changes quickly, or you run a business that can be highly seasonal, then including voluntary time off as an option could make sense for you. 

It gives you the flexibility to cut costs when necessary without employee turnover. 

Typically, this type of VTO program is ideal for retail businesses, some factories, warehouses, fulfillment centers, etc. 

But as we mentioned before, you should only use voluntary time off when it is mutually beneficial for both you and the employee, and not create the perception that you’re pressuring your staff to take time off only to cut costs.

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