Can’t you just hear executives around the world gnashing their teeth? Now that Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group has an approved a ‘take as much vacation as you want’ policy, there is going to be pressure for other companies to offer them as well. Question is, is this radical new idea a good one for the company or the employee? It might be both, or it might be neither – but kudos to Sir Richard for taking a chance on it.
Sir Richard’s decision on the holiday policy is not an original one. In his blog post announcing the new plan – and adding that employees do not need to get a manager’s approval to take time off either – he noted that Virgin was following streaming service Netflix, which has had a similar policy in place for years for all salaried employees. In the Netlix case the plan seems to have worked, judging from both the success of the company and by the fact that the policy has not been revoked.
Then again, although the Netflix unlimited policy has been in place for over four years, until the Virgin announcement it had not been much followed either. It sounds like a logistical nightmare for managers. If you can take time off anytime, why would everyone not add in a few extra days around Thanksgiving so that they can have a whole week off and travel when it is less busy? Why would everyone not take off a month in August to recharge? Why not make every Wednesday a mental health day, and leave early to beat the traffic on Fridays? Operating a profitable company under those conditions sounds like a challenge at best.
That Netflix and Virgin are not worried about companies taking too much time off speaks to the fact that there is in fact a catch in the unlimited vacation plan policy. Employees can be away as much as they want is the subtle context – as long as their work is covered. Leaving your department to cope on their own while you go to the cottage for a month would not be cool, and would no doubt catch up to you at some point. Netflix has always made it clear that they are looking for outstanding work, vacations notwithstanding. ‘Adequate work’ the company said in one dispatch, ‘gets a generous severance package’.
So is it really a trick, designed to make employees feel like they are getting more time off while in fact they would be better off taking less time off? Not really. The new policies are I think a nod to the fact that technology and a a new work structure is shaking things up in the corporate world. Some companies – notably Sir Richard’s Virgin – already encourage working from home or wherever else employees choose. Other companies, for good or bad, are moving towards more contract or freelance employees who are there to do a specific task rather than to be tethered to the company for the long term. And many younger workers are choosing to be part of the ‘gig’ economy and would not want corporate jobs anyway – although some might consider them under the ‘you choose your vacation’ policies.
The unlimited vacation plans may never catch on in a big way, much as the ‘take your budgie to work’ initiatives pretty much stayed a Silicon Valley thing. That they are being tried, however, is an indicator that we have a workplace and a corporate culture that is evolving and which might look very different in a decade than it does at present.