Choose how much holiday to take? No employee should be saddled with such a burden

Richard Branson is mistaken if he thinks this is an enlightened policy

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The Independent Online

It's the corporate equivalent of an honesty box. Virgin's announcement that they are considering giving their employees the right to take unlimited holidays is another Richard Branson initiative which is designed to burnish his reputation as an innovative, forward-thinking, and publicity-savvy business leader, but it's also a policy which squarely places an extra responsibility on the workers.

It's all right for Branson. It's his business, and he can slip off to Necker Island any time he wants. He's got a squadron of underlings to take up the slack, and in any case no one is going to question his right to take a break. For his employees, however, it's a slightly more complicated and nuanced equation. In theory, it's modern working practice, redolent of a new-age dot-com business, but in reality it leaves too much within the realms of uncertainty, placing an added burden on the individual worker.

Choice means anxiety. How much holiday is too much? Eight weeks? Ten weeks? Twelve? There are no guidelines, other than what we imagine our colleagues will think of us if we're consistently absent from our workstations. And, if we take less (itals) rather than more holiday, will that stand us in good stead with our bosses? On the one hand, it is an admirable initiative, which treats employees like grown-ups, leaving them to make personal decisions in a responsible and collegiate way, but I can't help feeling that what we want is certainty.

We are blighted by too much choice in almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives, and now here's another thing - an important thing, too - that relies on us to exercise discretion. Employees like to understand their rights and responsibilities, and need to feel that their welfare is of interest to their employers. But what they really want in terms of benefits is an entitlement rather an option.

Branson got the idea from the online entertainment company Netflix, which operates a similar scheme successfully, and he explained it in his blog thus: "The policy-that-isn't permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want. There is no need to ask for prior approval...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."

It sounds very attractive, but it's not quite as simple as that. Staff can only bunk off, added Sir Richard, when "they feel 100 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". Hands up anyone who has ever - ever - felt "100 per cent comfortable" that they are completely on top of things before going on holiday.     

And this bring us to a more disquieting aspect of this whole discussion: the blurring of the lines between work and play for the modern white-collar worker. Sir Richard, and other bosses who may be thinking the same way, do so in the knowledge that, even when their staff are out of the office, they are still working, virtually chained to their desks by their smartphones.

A far more effective way of ensuring that employees are happy, healthy and hard-working is not to make a specious offer about pick’n’mix holidays, but to lay down a directive - as a number of French companies have done - that emails are banned during vacation time. In that way, five weeks' holiday means just that, and we don't need to worry about whether we're getting enough, or too much.

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