Richard Branson has joined the bandwagon to offer unlimited leave to his employees. Unsurprisingly Branson has attracted a lot of attention for adopting the (non)policy, as it has been labelled, that has proved successful in Silicon Valley.
Critics have labelled the reward ‘threatening’ as the small print dictates staff: “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!”
However, this caveat is not too different to many jobs that do not offer an uncapped leave allowance. Many of us have had to postpone annual leave plans for work commitments. This policy though, is a tangible acknowledgement that work is no longer the defined period of time it used to be. Technological advancements have meant that people now work around the clock, be it ‘after nine-to-five hours’, weekends and sometimes by jumping into Starbucks to use wifi whilst actually on holiday.
It is not surprising, however, to hear that this policy applies only to Branson’s 170 personal staff. In reality the (non)policy may prove difficult to implement across the tens of thousands of flight attendants, gym instructors or hotel staff, although Branson’s indicates that this is in the pipeline. The truth is, the (non)policy has not been trialled on these customer facing roles where success is based on schedules, rotas and tight management. But having different reward schemes for different groups of staff is not necessarily a bad thing. More and more, organisations representing good practice segment their rewards based not only on seniority but based on types of roles. This is nothing new when it comes to rewarding sales people and flexible rewards are an effective way of incentivising individuals. Certainly for Virgin unlimited annual leave is a positive demonstration of the freedom culture that Virgin embodies.
Culture is an interesting twist in the Virgin unlimited leave policy and there’s further detail behind the headlines. Branson has introduced a mandatory vacation period for his staff in the US (as far as this is possible within the technological possibilities that exist today). While organisations in Europe have recently been subject to a lot of controversy enforcing their ban on out-of-hours email, the opposite is true for friends across the pond who are notorious for working relentlessly and receiving no statutory paid time off in return. In fact many US employees forego any small entitlement provided in their compensation package; although this is a cultural stereotype, Branson’s enforcement shows that it is true even for Virgin employees. I like the stance Branson has taken, not only because I love a holiday, but because it is a culture of work/life balance that Branson is trying to instil across the global Virgin Empire. It also responds to the fact that there is a working culture prevalent in the US that differs to the rest of the world and attempts to tackle this by showing that he is concerned about the well being of his employees.
The 2012-13 Global Workforce study (Towers Watson) shows that financially high-performing companies deliver on their work / life balance commitments. Branson, or more specifically Branson’s HR team, have responded to this finding in a way relevant to different segments of his organisation(s) and in line with Virgin’s organisational culture and values. However, organisations need to be wary about jumping on the bandwagon of companies that have created a culture that promotes and rewards freedom and applying it to an organisation that does not. Without the right organisational culture, these types of exciting rewards can backfire – the last thing an organisation needs is to spend time disciplining staff because they were not able to balance their holiday commitments without, in Branson’s words, “damaging the business”.