Unlimited holidays: Can it work?

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This week, Richard Branson said that the 170 employees on his personal staff can take as much holiday as they want, when they want.

Many employers will fall off their chairs in horror at the prospect of unlimited self-managed holiday. I can’t entirely blame them. Most businesses simply could not function if the management do not know when their people will be out of the office and for how long, manual and service sector companies alike. 

The introduction of such a benefit could be highly divisive. Holiday is very highly prized by most employees. If some people are having unlimited holiday and others are restricted to the statutory 5.6 weeks it’s likely to lead to great resentment. 

Still, policies of this type make us think. Flexibility in the workplace is important. Plenty of companies have found ways of making work more flexible. When businesses like this merge with less flexible companies, there tends to be a significant culture clash.

This sort of approach requires a strong level of trust, and there needs to be regular points of contact and attendance onsite to ensure that employees do not take advantage of the flexibility. Key Performance Indicators are vital if employees are working from home or abroad to ensure that the work does get done to the required standard. If employees are allowed to take holiday for as long as they want, the policy needs to be worded carefully to ensure that employers can fairly manage their people if employees are found to be abusing the policy. 

Arguably Branson’s approach equates to the greatest level of flexibility possible, without staff becoming self-employed. Control over employees is significantly reduced, although they answer to the company over performance and conduct. Indeed, some organisations may see high levels of flexibility among their employees (who cost an awful lot of money) as untenable, but using reliable self-employed people as a more cost-effective option and allowing the ‘worker’ much greater flexibility. 

Ultimately it does depend on the level of control over standards required and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Changing the culture of a company, let alone a sector, is no easy task. A more gradual change, testing out what works and balancing benefits with trust, is often a safer way to make progress.

Kate Russell is the managing director of Russell HR Consulting

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