I was interested to read in Richard Branson’s new book The Virgin Way that his head office staff are allowed to take as much holiday as they like as often as they choose. This is quite a change from when I worked for him. Many years ago, when I was working as what we would now call an intern in his first business venture- a magazine- he was reluctant to give his staff pay, let alone holidays. I negotiated wages on behalf of my fellow interns and as a result became one of his first employees.
What is interesting about the idea of giving your employees limitless holidays is that in practice they take less than those who receive a set allocation. Why? Peer pressure. Think about what happens when someone is considering taking a holiday? The other members of the team may say ‘You can’t leave us in the lurch’ or ‘Which of us is going to do your job while you’re away?’ So the guilty employee takes less rather than more. The employee who has six weeks holiday enshrined in a contract simply takes the time off guilt free because they’re entitled to it. It’s up to the company to worry about how to cover for them while they’re away.
What if someone feels no guilt at letting their colleagues down? Here’s the beauty of Branson’s scheme. They must, he says, be satisfied that their work is 100% up-to-date and business won’t suffer from them being away. Let’s put aside the fact that none of us, if we’re at all conscientious, ever feels we are completely up-to-date with our job. If your work suffers because of all the holidays you’ve taken, you’ll soon be on a permanent holiday.
I remember working for a company that introduced flexible hours. All the employees had to do was work 37 hours. For the first couple of weeks, Friday evening saw the offices were packed with people completing their time. After that, they settled into fairly standard hours but were happier because the early birds could come in at 7 am and the ones who liked a lie-in could work on til 7pm. Importantly, they could take time out for important personal matters and make it up without having to beg. The company was happier because employees stopped clock watching and no longer used working time for personal matters.
If all this sounds like a recipe for anarchy, it is. Many people think of anarchy as some kind of lawless everyone for themselves situation but, in political or philosophical terms, anarchy means that people work out for themselves and with each other how to behave rather than having a code of behaviour imposed on them. I’m dubious as to whether a country could survive without rulers but within businesses, it seems to work. When a company treats its employees like grownups, the employees think about their obligations rather than their rights.