Lucy Kellaway: Richard Branson “as much as you like” holiday offer a dud

Lucy Kellaway – this week the FT’s top columnist offers a counter to Richard Branson’s holiday policy

I love Lucy Kellaway’s work. And mostly agree with her arguments. But not today. Ms Kellaway offers the counter to Richard Branson’s decision that those who work close to him at Virgin can in future decide to take holidays whenever they like. She reckons in the real world employees made this offer will take even less holiday than before. Like Americans where, she says, anyone who takes their allowable two weeks is regarded by co-workers as a wimp. She has a point. On the other hand, giving workers more responsibility over a personal decision like holidays could be a step in the right direction. Utopia, surely , lies closer to world where people and companies contract on a totally fair basis – where we all work for ourselves and allocate time to employers as and when it suits us (and them) for a return acceptable to both parties. Different strokes. – AH    

By Lucy Kellaway*

Imagine working for an employer who treated you like a grown-up and let you take as much holiday as you liked. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

This is the deal Sir Richard Branson is extending to his private staff, and almost everyone has judged it very lovely indeed. Last week, he wrote a blog post extolling his own smart move and in the comments below he was deemed to be showing the way to a better future. Sir Richard isn’t the first to introduce this policy – for years Netflix has been declining to monitor how much time its people take off – but he is the first to see how much good publicity can come from it.

Richard Branson following his own advice - taking it easy on his island. Pic by
Branson….”lolling in a hammock, smartphone in hand, the Caribbean Sea lapping beneath him….” Pic by

“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,” he explained, his words accompanied by a photo of him lolling in a hammock, smartphone in hand, the Caribbean Sea lapping beneath him, and the fronds of a palm tree almost touching the locks of his hair.

Alas, there is a catch to all this sunshine and sand. Sir Richard goes on to explain that staff will only take time off when they “feel a hundred percent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project.”

Suddenly the deal looks like a staggeringly poor one for the people who run the entrepreneur’s office. In all the decades that I have worked, there has never been a single moment when I was 100 per cent comfortable that I was on top of everything. I can’t believe it is any different at Virgin.

The trouble with modern work is that it is endless. You are never through it, which means that judging when to take a break is very difficult indeed. A fixed holiday entitlement tells us it is OK to take a break – even though our work is far from done.

When it comes to holidays, we are pulled in two different directions. The more disaffected we are, the more holiday we want to take; the more ambitious, the more we’re inclined to take none at all.

In neither case should the choice be left entirely to us. Those who would rather be on permanent holiday need to be told to come to work; those who can never bring themselves to take a break need to be told to take one.

It is possible that the no-fixed-holiday policy might work if we all had a clear idea of what an acceptable amount of holiday looked like. But we don’t have a clue. It varies not only between people but between countries. In Europe we like a great deal of it – particularly in France where workers take a delightful 30 days – while in the US no one believes in holidays at all. The normal amount is 10 days, but only wimps actually take that. What is thought reasonable also varies between sectors – some teachers view anything less than three months as an outrage – and even between companies in the same industry.

Given all this, when we take a new job we need to know what the going rate is. If our employers won’t give us a hint, we have to work it out ourselves. A no-policy rule does not mean that no one is counting, but that we will all start monitoring each other’s holidays obsessively in order to work out how much to allow ourselves. It will take a brave person to book two weeks in the sun if their boss always settles for a long weekend.

Sir Richard says he hopes the scheme will be soon be copied by all his subsidiaries. But here I spot another catch. Is he really going to tell Virgin stewardesses, who currently are not at liberty to choose their own shade of lipstick, that they can take off as much time as they like? Or does he mean that the enlightenment will spread only as far as managers – which doesn’t sound terribly enlightened at all?

Although the deal itself is a dud, it does have logic on its side. Netflix points out that as we no longer expect people to work 9 to 5, and we trust them to work from home, it is madness to cling to the idea of fixed holidays. This is quite right. But it still doesn’t make it a good idea, at least not for the employee. Flexible working has been the worst deal for professional workers – and the best one for their employers – that there has ever been. Productivity soars, not because everyone is happy to be given freedom, but because they find they never stop working. Netflix reports that its choose-your-own holiday policy has made productivity go up even further. I can quite believe it, and don’t approve one bit.

This doesn’t mean the traditional way most employers approach holiday – keeping a minute track of all absences – is the right one. Excessive monitoring is almost always a bad idea. And the notion of an annual entitlement that cannot be carried over so that people end up taking holiday when it suits no one – that makes no sense, either. The answer is simple. Companies should state how much holiday people are expected to take, and then leave it up to them to take roughly that amount, give or take a day or two, as they see fit.

* email Lucy at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @lucykellaway

(c) 2014 The Financial Times Limited

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