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Is unlimited leave a good idea?

Richard Branson has announced unlimited annual leave at Virgin – but will it work?


Tom Flatau, MD of Teamworking International Ltd, thinks it will

If one of my employees has an epiphany in the middle of the night and is inspired to work on until the early hours I don’t expect to see them in the office at 9am. To me, that just seems unreasonable. And if a working parent has a sick child – why should their time off be taken from leave entitlement if they’re capable of rearranging tasks with no detriment to colleagues?  

The concept of restricted leave is perhaps stale at a time when we are doing everything we can to increase flexible working. People excel at different times of the day, for different lengths of time; if an employee successfully crams their working week from Monday to Thursday, meets deadlines, exceeds targets and performs – then why shouldn’t they spend a long weekend in Paris? 

If they have a critical call to make while away, it’s their responsibility to get it done in their own time – not an employer’s to demand they are sat at their desk to do it. Unlimited annual leave is just another step to giving employees the autonomy that proves you respect them. It says: “I trust you, I trust you can get your work done and contribute to this company. I trust you will manage how and when you do this - as an individual and as part of a team.” 

Such an attitude has already proven to boost employee morale, with companies such as Evernote, Hubspot and Netflix reporting nothing but good results; including increased engagement and productivity. Which is probably why Richard Branson has taken the leap at Virgin.

And let’s not forget: It is proven that stress is reduced when people have self-determination and control over their work and lives! Any company recoiling in horror at the idea of unlimited leave may need to address the culture under which their employees currently operate: With a culture of ownership and accountability (rather than micromanagement) staff are quite willing and able to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for achieving and exceeding their objectives.

Employees are unlikely to abuse such a policy if they feel valued. But what if they do abuse it? Underperformance will surely be the issue, not: ‘Have they taken too much leave?’.Critics of unlimited holiday say employees could end up taking no leave at all in a macho bid to out-do each other. Again, this comes down to company culture; leaders must set a good example, balancing work and time-out themselves. Additionally, companies that have already introduced unlimited leave have taken imaginative measures to ensure the system succeeds.

Staff engagement programs (such as An Even Better Place to Work™), clear company values and individual core purposes are all effective ways of building ownership and ensuring unlimited holiday is successful. Ultimately, an unlimited leave policy requires the sort of solidarity and values that all companies should be striving to achieve in a bid to recruit and retain happy and outstanding employees. 

Generation Y is continuing to redefine the workplace with virtual communications and technological advances that have received a mixed reception from Generation X. It seems that unlimited leave is their baby and has, unsurprisingly, been met with cynicism. But let’s not forget: We are making way for ‘Generation Z’  - to whom many of today’s policies will seem trivial and antediluvian. Let’s face it: They will have bigger fish to fry!

[Bio] Tom Flatau is MD of Teamworking International Ltd, a company that helps organisations achieve their corporate goals by solving leadership and employee engagement issues.


Babawande Sheba, Head of Logistics & Operations at GSM London, thinks it won't

Richard Branson’s unlimited holiday proposition for Virgin employees is, unfortunately, an empty promise. Much like when employers don’t explicitly say that they expect you to be available when an important client calls at 11pm, there is a clear unspoken rule here that actually may make taking holiday more difficult, especially for senior employees. Added to the fact that this ‘benefit’ only applies to a select group of senior management, and is rife with ts & cs, it soon becomes apparent that such an announcement may have more to do with marketing than workplace productivity.
Much of the media focus following the announcement has been debating whether or not companies will be left high and dry with multiple employees going off on extended leave. However, more likely in my opinion is the possibility of us moving towards a situation where corporate employees are often afraid to be seen to take a holiday. It’s like the idea of ‘personal days’ – being able to phone in, without an excuse and without notice, and say that you’re not coming in that day. However, these are often few in number and are mostly used to ensure paid leave when an employee is unwell. Branson’s unlimited holiday is just another example of a restriction dressed up as a perk.

Workplaces these days are becoming ever more competitive, and there is the risk that not having a set amount of holiday will make people even more reluctant to take leave. For example, if you’re up for promotion against a colleague with equal qualifications and experience, you may worry that success is dependent on erroneous perceptions of ‘dedication’, i.e. taking little and infrequent holiday. On top of this, today’s senior manager often has far too great a workload to even contemplate taking extended holiday, so the benefit will most likely go untaken.
And as for junior staff? They may have the freedom to take the holiday, due to, for example having more colleagues in similar roles and less responsibility, but there is the chance that they could be worried to take too much in case it is viewed negatively in performance reviews, thus potentially stifling support for their professional development. It really is a catch 22. On the flipside, there have been various studies demonstrating that taking holiday is beneficial to businesses in terms of the increased productivity their employees experience after having a break. Getting out of the four walls of our offices allows our minds to take a break from the task at hand, which has been shown to improve creativity. What Branson needs to realise is that whilst people work in different ways, are productive at different times, and need different amounts of breaks to recharge their batteries, one thing should remain constant: paid leave allowance. A fixed allowance promotes fairness and equality in the workplace, and diminishes the opportunity for those with their nose to the grindstone to discriminate against those whose five day break to Majorca will allow for renewed motivation.
I’d be interested to see how much leave per Virgin employee has been taken a year or so down the line.
[Bio] Babawande Sheba is Head of Logistics & Operations at GSM London (Greenwich School of Management) 



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