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Keeping control of unlimited holidays

Andrew Brassleay

Andrew Brassleay on how to implement unlimited holidays without staff taking advantage of this increasingly popular perk

Unlimited time off for staff: Five words that not so long ago would have had most managers driving off with the holiday diary and burying it in a quarry, screaming.

That was before tech companies such as Netflix pioneered such a policy. Big names such as Virgin followed, along with a slew of start-up marketing and media firms, citing improved employee happiness and productivity.

It’s a growing trend. So how should managers go about implementing such a scheme without the fear half the workforce will immediately book a joint six-month jaunt to The Bahamas?

Peter Mooney, Head of Consultancy for HR expert ELAS Business Support says the main risk to a company is its bottom line: "What is the cost to the business if multiple employees were to take too much time off? Would the budget allocated for paid leave cover the deficit? The answer to this would undoubtedly be a resounding no."

So, a company needs to be clear it has the right conditions in place before implementing unlimited holidays. A key factor is already having a positive working culture in place.

Charles Cotton, Public Policy Adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says: this kind of ‘non-policy’ "will only work in organisations where there is a very high level of trust, an outcomes-based approach to performance management, where employees work autonomously and where there is already a large amount of flexibility in working arrangements."

One such business, that rolled the policy out in April, is Folkestone’s Sleeping Giant Media, a search and social marketing agency. Here, staff happiness is part of the business model - office perks include bean bags, a bar, pool table and chill-out areas.

Managing Director Luke Quilter sees unlimited holidays as an extension to this - and he believes it’ll have the knock-on effect of giving his staff more personal responsibility.

Luke admits the policy is "radical", but says: "We go through our lives being told what to do. With holiday allowances you’re treated almost like a child. So we’re giving more responsibility to employees to think about much more sensible times about when to take time off.

"We’re trying to change the thought process and put in place values that are consistent with our company. We want our people to consider their workload and their clients when taking holidays."

He adds: "It fits in to push responsibility on our people so they don’t feel then that they are being told what to do."

Aira, a digital marketing company in Milton Keynes, incorporated the scheme in January. Co-founder Matt Beswick agrees one of the aims is to give employees control of their own workflow.

He says: "we don't want to fall into the kind of trap that most agencies do where it is all about sitting at your desk 24 seven and clients shout pretty loud and tell you to jump how high and you have to do it. We are firm believers in the idea that if people are to do their jobs well they need to have the flexibility to be able to do it."

Matt adds that having employees with good relationships with each other, who can help each other out before one takes a holiday, helps, as does having a good mentality in the first place to develop the trust between employer and employee: "We don't just hire based on what the person can do, we do a lot of our decision-making based on attitude. So assuming we do our jobs properly and get the right people in who actually give a shit about what they're doing, we think the rest comes quite naturally."

A surprising knock-on effect, Matt says, is the interest clients have shown: "On two separate pitches, it was mentioned to us as a really positive thing, and even though it wasn't the only thing why that potential client got in touch, it was something that showed them what kind of company we are, and it almost gave us another tick in the box as the kind of agency that they wanted to work with. I would have never really have expected because if clients get in touch with an agency then you would think the most important thing for them would be that they would get as much as possible for their money, But I think businesses are thinking a lot more about culture."

There are difficulties to consider. Both Sleeping Giant and Aira allow a maximum of two weeks off as a chunk in the first instance, to ensure work with clients is kept on top of in the fast-paced digital sector. There is also the increased uncertainty, but both Matt and Luke said the amount time taken off worked out as about the same as before the scheme.

There’s also legal requirements to consider around a minimum of 28 days’ holiday, which can be handled by companies keeping track of time taken off purely for that reason. "If someone hasn't taken nearly enough days then we do given them a nudge in the right direction, says Matt.

But although such a policy might not suit a company with a rigid 9-to-5 structure, Luke says, with the right elements in place, he believes unlimited holidays can be a boost to business: "You have to trust your employees and you have to have a culture where people won’t take the mickey, but that culture comes from the company itself."

Matt agrees and says in order to get the best employees, companies need to adapt: "People want the flexibility to work where ever they want to, whenever they want to. So if you're still in a place that needs to work from a single location, I think it's really important to emulate what other companies are able to give in flexible working, but in a way that suits your business."

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