Richard Branson Says Employees Should Have Unlimited Vacations - What's the Catch?

The Branson genius is to take something that other people think is big and complicated and make it look fun and easy. From transatlantic travel to banking, the Branson message is that anyone can do it and have lovely teeth too.

This week’s wheeze fits the Branson model brilliantly. Some Virgin employees, he suggests, should be free to take as much holiday as they like. This sounds like the kind of suggestion that either applies only to three people in the entire company, or comes with more small print than Apple’s terms and conditions.

There again, it may be that it doesn’t need small print, just that nagging sense of job insecurity familiar to millions in these days of what is called flexible employment. According to Branson, it would be simply a matter of personal judgment. The only constraint would be if the employee entertained the faintest doubt that he or she was “up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business”. Or, as he put it with that legendary twinkle, their careers.

That should be enough to keep most workers chained to their desks for ever. If the first condition for taking time off is deciding you wouldn’t be missed, it sounds scarily like an invitation to the boss to make it permanent. Note our current poll marking Go Home on Time day. Two-thirds of you who have voted do not go home on time, possibly because you are doing online polls.

Like so many of these cuddly notions, behind the pick-your-own-holiday offer is a distinct grinding sound as another bit of the boundary between being at work and not being at work is eroded. This half-life where the unlimited reach of emails and texts forges an invisible chain between home and desk is now so pervasive that in countries where trade unions can still make a difference, there are campaigns to create more free time. In France, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) has managed to negotiate “un droit des cadres à la déconnexion” – the right of managers to disconnect. In Germany, some employers make switching off out of office hours compulsory.

As Branson admits, it’s not even his idea. It comes from the birthplace of contemporary creativity, including employment practice, California. This is where digital giants like Google and Apple are in such competition for the best talent, people with brains too big to be satisfied with mere cash, that they build fun palaces instead of offices and offer on-demand massage and you get a company razor scooter in the welcome pack.

It was Netflix that invented the no holiday limit. In some circles, its employment practices have made it almost as famous as its product. But as its founding HR executive Patty McCord wrote in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, unlimited holiday is merely the most obvious expression of what she describes as a completely different way of imagining the rules of hiring and firing.

It’s not an all-the-holiday-you-like policy, she said, it’s part of a whole relationship between the company and the employee that is built on trust. The whole style is casual, HR in a hoodie, with informal conversations instead of annual appraisals, results not process. A great workplace, says a slide in a powerpoint presentation that is apparently a legend in the world of human resources, isn’t sushi lunches, it’s great workmates.

Unfortunately, nothing’s ever quite that cosy. Sometimes people have to go. And if their skills no longer match – why does that sound so sinister? – you pay them a load of money and sack them, hoping they don’t go to court. That’s the strategy known in the UK as the George Entwistle move, in memory of the short-lived and expensively discharged BBC director general. This utopia depends on one principle: only hiring “fully formed adults” in the first place. Fully formed adults! “We’re like a pro-sports team”, says McCord, “not a kids’ recreational team. Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut SMARTLY. So we have a star in every position.”

It doesn’t apply in Netflix call centres.


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