What Is Flexible Time Off?

Flexible time off is one of those workplace perks that businesses tout when hiring and employees crave -- especially after a stressful year of canceled vacations and disruptions to day-to-day life. So how does flexible time off work, and is it a benefit you should seek in your next job? We'll try to unpack it all.

What Is Flexible Time Off?

In a nutshell, this is a company benefit that offers paid time off for employees to do whatever they choose. You can use flexible time off as a sick day, a vacation day, to run errands or even to stay home and binge-watch movies.

[READ: 8 Types of Employee Benefits.]

Flexible Time Off vs. Unlimited Time Off

Flexible time off should be easy to understand, but it's a fairly new perk. Because you can use it for any reason, it's easy to overthink things. Should you not use it to extend a vacation? Can you go overboard and use it too much? Is it unlimited paid time off, or is there a limit?

Much of the confusion can be diminished by looking at your employee handbook or talking to your company's human resources specialist to find out what's allowed and what isn't. After all, some flexible time off packages have a certain number of days you can take off and some offer unlimited time.

It's often better for you, though, if your flex time, or PTO or vacation time is not unlimited, says Selena Rezvani, a leadership speaker and consultant based in Philadelphia who often advises human resources departments.

"Unfortunately, research suggests that employees with unlimited vacation actually take fewer days off on average than those with a limited number due to pressures to not go overboard with the perk," Rezvani says.

How Flexible Time Off Works

Again, consult your employee handbook or talk to your HR manager, but in general, "employees still need to treat their days away from the office like more traditional vacation or sick days," says Janelle Owens, HR director at Test Prep Insight, an online education company headquartered in Reno, Nevada.

"This means asking managers for the time off, notifying colleagues and customers and setting expectations with teams. Just because it's called flexible time off doesn't mean you can just take off one day when you feel like it and come back a couple days later. Well, technically you can, but that would be in very poor form, as it would negatively impact your team and leave your manager very annoyed."

Owens adds that a major misconception many people have about flexible time off is that employees can take off as much time as they want.

"This is incorrect, and what they are likely thinking of is an unlimited PTO policy. Flexible time off still has caps on the total number of days an employee can take off. It just alters the kinds of days employees can take off ... wellness days, mental health days, vacation, sick, you name it. Think of flexible PTO as a looser form of the traditional PTO."

[See: Best Jobs for Work-Life Balance.]

Best Practices for Flexible Time Off

Actually take your paid time off. Don't take PTO every once in a blue moon -- take time off fairly regularly. "By doing so, you train your manager to see it as a consistent, natural occurrence rather than a rare event," Rezvani says.

Don't overexplain why you're taking PTO. "Keep your request brief and business-like," Rezvani advises. "Don't go into detail about your time off or feel the need to explain it, such as 'I need to take Billy to a dentist,' or 'I'm going to a day spa in Arizona.' Doing this can set a precedent that you'll share your whereabouts every time you use PTO."

Try to schedule your PTO well in advance. If an emergency comes up, that's one thing. If you know about a vacation or appointment three months in advance, and you wait to put in a request for PTO two days ahead, you could end up surprising colleagues.

It's easier for everyone if you set your time-off plans ahead of time, according to Felicia Daniel, SHRM-CP, human resources manager at TINYpulse, an employee engagement software company headquartered in Seattle.

Daniel points out that if you schedule your PTO as far ahead as possible, you can delegate tasks, avoid scheduling mishaps and maybe most importantly, feel good about taking off work because you scheduled your time off in a smart and responsible way.

And then once you do take time off, "don't feel guilty," Daniel advises. "These policies are in place for you."

She also says no one should feel guilty for taking time off. "Don't underestimate what you've been through this past year. Enjoy your time off," she urges.

[Read: A Guide to Calling in Sick.]

Understand your company's flexible time off policy. This will save you money in the long run.

"Employees should understand their company's PTO policy and make certain it is compliant with state law. Some state laws treat PTO time earned by employees as a legal liability of the employer, meaning it must be either taken by the employee or paid to the employee," says Bill Lyons, author of "We are HR: The Business Owner's Definitive Guide to Professional Employer Organizations" and CEO of Lyons HR, based in Florence, Alabama. "Employees should know whether the policy allows them to accumulate a large bank of unused PTO days or if it's limited to a certain number."

For instance, Lyons asks, "Does the company have a use-it-or-lose-it policy when it comes to PTO? Employees cannot always assume their employer's PTO policy is compliant with the laws in their state."

Another reason to learn how your flexible time off policy works is that it may not work the way you think. "Some employers may deny PTO during particularly busy times of the year, or if an employee's absence would create an undue hardship," Lyons says.

All the more reason to schedule flexible time off as far in advance as you can. Because companies that offer flexible time off aren't always so flexible if you're always asking for time off at the last minute.