It’s not unlimited holidays workers need, but an absolute ban on after-hours emails and calls

It would be almost impossible to run anything if staff only turned up when they felt like it, but they should be offered greater flexibility

Click to follow

Headline-grabbing stunt or bloody good idea? No one can accuse Sir Richard Branson of being a shrinking violet, but his latest pronouncement could easily backfire. He’s told his personal staff here and in the US they can take whatever holidays they like.

Branson has pinched the idea from the video streaming company Netflix, one of those modern tech organisations whose employees are relatively young and ambitious, prepared to sign up to a corporate philosophy in the way many new media businesses expect. I don’t expect they are the kind of employees who’d abuse this freedom and I bet that most of them work well over their contracted hours every single week anyway, in the office and at home.

In the US, most people have meagre holiday allowances, and many of my American friends take less than two and a half weeks’ vacation a year, fearful they will lose their jobs or be seen as “disloyal”. You don’t really encounter that mindset here in the UK, where many bosses are still distant and corporate loyalty has taken a battering with the lay-offs since the recession.

Netflix decided to abolish holiday entitlements a couple of years ago, and reckons productivity and creativity have flourished ever since. Trusting workers to do their job in whatever time it takes sounds empowering, but is it? We already spend far more time working than our contracts specify. Modern technology means we can answer emails 24/7, on the train, the plane and the bus. We are available to work everywhere and anywhere, our hands welded to our iPhones and BlackBerries, even in the bedroom. Work dominates our life to an unhealthy degree, and we fail to impose any kind of boundaries or ring-fence our private and domestic lives.

In schools, children lose up to an hour of lessons a day through low-level interruptions and bad behaviour. Parents who have no self-discipline, who jabber about work on their phones through meals and in the car, are spawning children who are restless and inattentive. We have to re-learn how to take time for quietness, stillness and restful thinking away from our jobs, and pass that on to the next generation. We need time to connect with our families and listen to what they have to say. Getting rid of holidays further blurs the lines between work and home.


I’d be more impressed if Branson announced he was giving all staff double the amount of holidays and banning them from sending emails outside office hours. Most businesses will never adopt the “no limits” holiday model because some people will abuse it and those left in the office will end up working twice as hard.

You can’t run transport systems or shops, hospitals or job centres using whatever staff feel like turning up on the day. I want employers to be more flexible, recognising that workers need proper breaks as well as well-defined rules about attendance – and about when the working day ends. Abolishing holidays might seem altruistic but actually means that bosses have more power over us.


The irresistible charms of Chatsworth and its owner

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has just died aged 94, did a brilliant job of turning her home into a theme park, and the results were emulated all over the world. She connected with people from all backgrounds and walks of life and was completely unstuffy.

A couple of days before her death, I paid my first visit to Chatsworth, walking over the hill from Bakewell, stopping for a cuppa at the charming tearoom in Edensor, the village where she spent her final years living in the former vicarage. Chatsworth has always championed contemporary art, and I went to see the annual sculpture show arranged throughout the spectacular gardens. The gold-painted window frames of the main house were ablaze on a balmy autumn day and I wondered how much it would cost to emulate them in my farmhouse in North Yorkshire, where the sun hardly bothers to peek through from December to March.

Deborah Cavendish combined a brilliant eye for money-making with impeccable taste, flogging every aspect of the Chatsworth lifestyle in her many retail outlets on the estate – from blankets to pies and jam, chocolates, wine and even clothes pegs.

My favourite piece in the art show was a giant marble wing, entitled Maro, by the president of the Royal Academy, Christopher Le Brun. Elegant and mysterious, it would make a fitting memorial to this delightful woman.


No more bellowing beards in the bistro, please

There are two trends I can’t wait to see the back of, and an evening last week was ruined by encountering both at once. Bistrot Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell was one of my local haunts, but Bruno has expanded his empire and wasn’t cooking the night I visited. His place in the open kitchen was taken by a man with a prodigious beard, one of the magnificent ZZ Top displays which have become a high fashion accessory.

Beardie bellowed and shouted his way through every order and, as I was dining relatively early, dominated the proceedings to an unacceptable level. Given that the kitchen was producing food for about 10 customers, the amount of noise generated sounded like close of business on a commodities exchange.

Also, if health and safety rules mean that men and women have to tie back their long hair, what are the regulations relating to bushy beards? Surely a lot of microbes can be lurking in their furry depths? (Just asking, not beard-phobic.) In spite of amateur service, the food was pretty good. But I won’t be going back until the kitchen is a less aggressive place.


‘Question Time’ could do with a Pub Landlord

I had a bruising encounter with the Pub Landlord, aka Al Murray, last week as he was clutching a beer in his trademark red blazer, and looking for a new girlfriend. Sadly, I can’t pull pints.

The Pub Landlord has become a national treasure, celebrating 20 years of finely honed observations on the state of our nation as seen through a beer mug. His tour, One Man, One Guv’nor, is taking in more than 90 venues, right up to next May’s general election.

Nigel Farage and the Pub Landlord seem to have a lot in common. Both attract followers devoted to their toxic blend of jingoistic observations about the state of the nation. On Thursday, I travelled up to Kelso to take part in Question Time, and I wondered why the Pub Landlord has never been invited on the programme. They’ve had me, Nigel Farage, Nick Griffin, Carol Vorderman, Benjamin Zephaniah and Will Self, so why not Al Murray, who is a highly intelligent fellow called Alastair with an MA from Oxford in modern history, whose dad was a lieutenant colonel and whose grandfather was a Scottish toff?

Murray has made thoughtful films about German culture for the BBC and signed a letter recently urging the Scots to vote No in the referendum. Apparently Alastair Murray has refused an invitation to take part as himself, and the producers think The Pub Landlord inappropriate. I beg to differ.

Appearing on Question Time in the Borders is like being thrown to the lions. All went reasonably well, until I had the temerity to attack the mansion tax, saying it was ill-conceived, would never work and was a classic example of using class to win votes. It went down like the proverbial cup of cold sick, and someone tweeted: “You could see real hatred in the eyes of the audience.”

Maybe the Pub Landlord would have handled it better.