Richard Branson’s recent announcement that staff at Virgin Airlines can take as much holiday as they like has certainly generated a lot of comment and publicity. It has also divided opinion.
At first glance it seems too good to be true. Employees have no fixed holiday entitlement. They have no need to book in advance or seek permission to take time off. Feeling fed up on Friday? Well just take the day off. Fancy driving an old London bus across France? Take a month off.
Surely there has to be a catch?
The naysayers usually focus on these words in the new policy (the policy that isn’t a policy in the words of Branson) (click for the full article)
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 a hundred per cent 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!
They conclude that no one ever feels 100% up to date, and surely that bit about careers is a veiled threat. So in fact to prove their value staff will take less holiday than before!
Others argue that it is just a publicity stunt, coinciding as it does with yet another Branson book. I don’t doubt that the release of this policy is well timed. That, for me, just demonstrates Branson’s entrepreneurial spirit rather than detracting from the policy.
I heard someone vehemently arguing that it would only work if everyone was a shareholder or on a big bonus – otherwise they would just bunk off.
I think this entirely misses the point. Firstly it has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt that incentives do not incentivise performance once we get beyond basic tasks. Further any staff shareholding or bonus is likely to be relatively small – the impact of my taking extra time off on profits overall is tiny which translates to a meaningless reduction in my cash bonus or share scheme income compared to the ‘value’ of the extra holiday.
The doubters assume that everyone (presumably except themselves?) turns up to work under duress and only does the bare minimum to get paid and avoid being fired. This is not my experience and I doubt it is yours. I have never met anyone who set out to do a bad job although I have met many under skilled, badly lead and poorly motivated employees.
We are social creatures and gaining the acceptance and appreciation of the group is hard wired in us. Most of us want to do a good job. It is only when poor systems and leaders push us into tasks for which we are ill suited and crush our spirit that we lose this desire.
Netflix are perhaps the most well known business that has this policy. Netflix understood that in a world where we all check emails wherever and whenever, no one works 9-5. We carry our offices with us at all times in the form of a smart phone (most of us sleep within arms reach too). If we don’t expect workers to log every moment they spend working when not in the office why doesn’t it work the other way around?
The expectation is that staff will discuss vacation plans with co-workers and agree time off rather than going through a formal process with a manager. This allows creative solutions – I’d like Monday mornings off to go to Yoga classes, if Sally covers my Monday morning meeting and Fred covers for her when she takes that extended Christmas vacation to visit relatives in Australia, I’ll cover for Fred in the spring when he needs to leave early to get some marathon training done.
Simple. Creative. Human.
Yet very threatening to managers who are used to position and process creating order.
Branson’s move is simply a first step in self management. The concept is simply that if the structure gets out of the way the workers will self organise in a highly effective way. This has been tried and tested by an increasing number of businesses. With almost invariably positive results. At Virgin, as the management structure still exists, one assumes that anyone who fails to maintain the expected performance and fulfil their duties will be subject to some form of action. In fully self managing organisations this is dealt with by the workers themselves – not via an imposed hierarchy.
The challenge for Virgin is allowing the system to develop, ensuring that managers do not try to impose authority and order in other ways. I will be watching the results of this keenly as I am increasingly seeing signs that such self management is a growing movement that strikes a deep chord within us.