Virgin Group's Sir Richard Branson has just announced that a core group of his employees will be able to "take off whenever they want for as long as they want."
"It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off," says Branson in the blog post announcing the new policy, "the assumption being that they are only going to do it when they feel a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business—or, for that matter, their careers!"
Branson was inspired, he says, by Netflix's recent adoption of the same no-policy vacation policy. Employees working at all hours at the streaming company had asked how that always-on approach fit with a more old-fashioned vacation policy, and Netflix listened. ‘We should focus on what people get done," Netflix's "Reference Guide on our Freedom and Responsibility Culture" says, "not on how many hours or days worked. Just as we don’t have a nine-to-five policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.’
The list of companies that offer unlimited vacation is a short one. Some of the better known are Netflix, Evernote, Business Insider, Zynga, Groupon and SurveyMonkey. It's probably no surprise General Electric, Coca-Cola or Ford aren't on the list. Trusting employees to work from home has been a difficult enough practice for employers to get comfortable with. Trusting employees to disappear as they please is on a whole other level. But the concept is clearly catching on and the list is growing, if ever so slowly.
Initially, the new vacation policy — or as Branson calls it, the "policy-that-isn't" — will only apply to 170 of Virgin's employees, essentially Branson's personal staff. Eventually, however, the policy could migrate to Virgin employees around the globe, as it should: Treat employees humanely and trust them to make the right decisions, and if they don't make the right decisions they're (theoretically) big enough boys and girls to fully understand the possible consequences, as Branson implies in his announcement without much subtlety.
In practice, the idea may also have some limitations: Workers may experience what Columbia Business School Professor described to Quartz last year as “choice overload,” not taking advantage of the policy because they aren’t clear as to how much vacation is appropriate for them to take. And in our performance-based office culture, employees may forego time off anyway because of pressures to keep pace with the guy hunched over his laptop in the next workstation. Branson could well find he’s gotten loads of positive PR without employees actually taking more time off.
Still, more flexible vacation policies have real promise — and if done right could be much more appealing than other so-called perks offered by companies concerned about their office culture.
Several years ago, I worked as a contract writer for an online investment-advice company. The owners saw themselves as iconoclasts, like so many tech entrepreneurs do, and the offices were filled with all the trappings that have now become clichéd at such companies: video games, bean bag chairs, billiards tables and refrigerators filled with beer.
But what impressed me most — and what as a contractor I could only envy from afar — was the company's vacation policy, which allowed employees to take as much vacation as they wanted so long as they informed their managers and were caught up on their work. The unwritten rules were no more than two weeks at a time, no more than one month a year.
I never cared about beer-filled refrigerators or bean bag chairs during my time as an investment writer. Beer-filled fridges? I had one of those at home. And bean bag chairs aren't really even that comfortable. As for unlimited vacation time, that's a concept I'm still ready to get very comfortable with. Maybe Branson would like to expand that list of lucky employees to 171.
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