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Holiday breaks into Virgin territory – the next step towards total employee flexibility?

As ever, Richard Branson is at the forefront of ground-breaking societal developments. The billionaire head of Virgin recently announced that 170 staff in his families’ offices in the UK and US would be allowed to take as many days holiday as they liked, whenever they wished to do so. Staff don’t even need to request permission to take holiday.

generic leaveBranson’s focus is to get away from “draconian vacation policies” and outdated working practices where a 9-5, Monday-Friday regime is no longer the norm. He said:

“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. The assumption being that they 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 the business – or, for that matter, their careers!”

The clear intention of this “non-policy” is to increase flexibility by allowing employees absolute autonomy on how they plan and execute their work around social and family commitments.

Branson was motivated by a similar scheme which was implemented by the online company, Netflix, which reported an increase in productivity, creativity and morale as a result of a more flexible regime. If the system works successfully then it will be rolled out to other Virgin subsidiaries.

Employers who are considering ways of improving employee engagement and greater flexibility across their workforces will doubtless be looking carefully at this development. Usually, wherever Branson has led, the world has followed but this is not likely to be an approach that will be appropriate for all businesses or sectors.

One can see the scope for giving greater autonomy to, for example, employees who work for professional services firms (and who normally have greater flexibility in how they organise and when they do their work) but less so for workers in the retailing and manufacturing sectors where work is much more process driven and rigorously organised. It may of course be perfectly possible for manufacturing employers to allow white collar workers to take unlimited holidays as and when they like but not to extend this right to front line staff. However that would effectively create a “two tier workforce” with front line employees or unions expressing dissatisfaction at the apparent disparity of treatment.

Inevitably a system which allows employees to take as much holiday as they like when they like, must be responsibly managed by all who participate in it to ensure there is no disruption to service and that employees fulfil their contractual duties. The emphasis behind Branson’s system is that employees will only take holiday where their work or the demands of the business allow them to, otherwise the system won’t work and it could ultimately affect their career development. Consequently, where an employee is a member of a team, communication amongst team members will be required to ensure that operational requirements are properly resourced during holiday periods.

Employers who adopt such a system will of course be able to performance manage any employee who is unable to discipline themselves and takes too much holiday thereby not leaving sufficient time for their work. One outcome of performance management may be to remove such flexibility and require an employee to return to normal working hours with specified holiday entitlement. That sanction may prove quite an incentive to employees who wish to retain valuable flexibility.

Other employers are certain to follow suit….

Other blogs of interest:

What did you do with your e-mail when you were away on holiday (assuming you have had one)?

Lock case on commission and holiday pay due in Tribunal in October

Calculating holiday pay – what to do in the meantime

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Legal news, views, trends and tools for HR Professionals. Stay ahead. Go further