Insight article

Who wants a vacation?

You may have heard Richard Branson’s announcement that employees at Virgin will no longer face any restrictions on the amount of holiday time they take each year. As long as the work is being done, employees there can now decide for themselves when, how, and for how long they’d like to spend on the beach sipping piña coladas.

Virgin isn’t quite the first to do something like this; IBM, for example, allows employees to buy and sell their holiday allotments in an internal marketplace. But it sounds, at least at first, like a dream holiday policy. And it sounds like a rational response to the changing ways we work in the 21st century.

First of all, employees demand more and more sense of meaning at work; they want to want to be there. In the older perspective, that of workers as wage-earners and clock-watchers, annually allotted holiday time feels like something akin to prison furlough. If work is something we enjoy doing, there’s no reason to think anyone would abuse the freedom to step away for a bit.

Secondly, there’s a growing trend, of course, towards flexible working. Approaches such as working from home, job sharing, flexible hours, etc. – together with constant connectivity – blur the line between ‘working’ and ‘not working’. Vacation, then, could be seen as just another method by which employees figure out for themselves the best combination of approaches to getting stuff done. Employees would determine just how much time away from work they need to keep themselves from burning out.

That said, things could go wrong. My guess would be that most Virgin employees will probably hew to the 25 or so days per year that most UK office workers get* – simply because that’s what they’re used to, and what they probably feel is expected. I recently returned from two weeks away; it was a great way to recharge my energy and sense of perspective, and when I got back, I found that projects I’d been working on had been perfectly well looked after by my colleagues. Employees help cover for vacationing office-mates because they do the same for them; there’s rarely a sense of being put upon to do a bunch of extra work. But this only works because everyone knows it’s fair at the end of the year, that no one’s slagging off any more than anyone else.

This kind of trust could easily break down if the length and frequency of holidays taken by team members begins to vary greatly. Employees could grow to resent covering for their colleagues, which would result in a toxic atmosphere of passive aggression and mistrust. Or, perhaps worst of all, the policy could result in taking significantly fewer holidays, not more; the supposed badges of honour will go to those who take the fewest holidays, not the most. In working cultures under constant threat of workaholism, the open vacation policy could end up having adverse effects on productivity and morale.

As revolutionary as the open vacation policy may sound, I wouldn’t bet on it having much effect on the total time employees take annually. But it could end up being the next big ‘perk’ that forward-looking employers begin to advertise – hollow as it may be.

* In my first job, in the US, I got 10 days of holiday per year, which wasn’t out of the ordinary. This fact strikes my UK colleagues as wondrously nightmarish.

Nailia Tasseel