The benefits of a long holiday


A great deal of excitement and frenzied comment was whipped up after Richard Branson’s recent announcement concerning Virgin’s new holiday entitlement initiative.

Applause thundered from one corner, while from the other came scepticism and scorn for what is, according to Branson, a ‘well advised and downright courageous initiative.’

In short, Virgin are offering staff unlimited holiday entitlement, to be managed at the individual employee’s discretion. To Branson, the openness symbolises Virgin’s focus on employee productivity, rather than their endurance skills: ‘we should focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked.’ Judging a employee’s value to the business on their office attendance is ‘draconian’, ill-suited to today’s modern working lives. A high five to the ‘no policy’ is much more in keeping with Virgin’s dynamic, youthful and revolutionary approach to work. Branson’s philosophy si that workers can take time off ‘whenever the want for as long as they want.’ There is no need to ask for prior approval and no one is expected to keep track of their days away from the office. It’s power to the people, where individuals can decide if and when they feel like taking a few hours, a day, a week, or a month off. What more could they want from a company? It’s an empowering message in these grey overworked days.

At the heart of Branson’s new ‘no’ policy is trust: trust in an employee’s commitment to Virgin. That reciprocation – of you scratch my back and I will scratch yours – is very much the bonding principle. Big Brother we are not. And apparently it works: companies operating a similar holiday entitlement scheme, such as Netflix, have experienced a marked upward spike in all areas – morale, creativity and productivity, showing that leniency works as an important ingredient for improved employee engagement.

Yet, as some have questioned, is everything really so rosy in Branson’s liberal approach? There is an important clause in Branson’s lauding of the ‘no policy’ concerning expectation around when employees should feel comfortable taking time off work, which is worth printing in full:

‘the assumption being that they (the employees) are only going to do it when they feel 100% comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage their business – or, for that matter, their careers!’

Echoing through that final clause is threatening chuckle – a veiled threat of ‘do it at your own peril.’ On the one hand, employees can take time off at their own discretion, but that time needs to be based on sound calculations. It’s certainly not inviting people to decide on their own holiday plan at their own leisure. Looking at it again, time off now seems a risk, particularly in this age when mobile technology is eroding the time between work and not being at work. So many of us have written and responded to emails in our own time, in our own homes. The influence of work is pervasive: it’s the long work hours culture. Coupled with Branson’s insinuation, you would rightly expect Virgin employee’s to be left with a nagging sense of job insecurity when it comes to taking holiday time, anxious about whether they will be missed, whether the bosses agree that all their responsibilities were completed and dependencies rescinded.

Not having an official code doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Expected behaviour in the workplace eventually sets the norm, whether there is a document in place or not. Richard Branson is wise. He knows that the potential of unlimited holiday won’t result in workplace anarchy.

In most cases, having written rules protects the vulnerable, as much as it doesn’t the rich – employer and employee. Without written rules it is hard to establish mutual trust and work-based power tends to gravitate towards the whims of leaders or whoever shouts the loudest. Rather than offsetting risk onto his employees, Richard Branson may have better luck championing a liberal countercultural philosophy by charting cheap flights to the likes of Marrakesh, Ibiza and Goa.