After a hurried rush to find misplaced passports, the final packing frenzy, and the disaster that is finding airport parking, I’ve made it. I’m at the airport, standing in line, and I notice some poor soul who has already announced his status as a tourist with his prominent shorts, socks, and sandals. I get on the plane, and off I go to South America for two months of soul searching among the Andes, likely replete with some poorly places attempt at Spanish and a few rounds of food poisoning. All part of the fun. Anyways, the best part? My job will be sitting there waiting for me when I get back.
If we’re being completely honest here, this is a bit of a daydream, at least in my case. Earlier this month, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Group announced that staff will be allowed unlimited time off work without prior warning in the hope that it will boost morale, creativity, and productivity in the office. This, of course, created something of a stir in the media and reawakened the debate about the nature of work in the 21st Century, mostly by people who suddenly wished they worked at Virgin Group.
As I struggled to get my head around this apparent anarchic move, I discovered that although unlimited vacation is a rare benefit, companies such as Groupon, Glassdoor, Eventbrite, Survey-Monkey and a few others (a daunting 1% of companies in the US) also have this policy. Sir Richard was inspired by Netflix, which adopted this way of working in 2010 in response to an effort by employees trying to further reconcile the increasingly viable option of working from home with annual vacation leave.
Senior management at Netflix took a more holistic approach by deciding to concentrate on overall project outcomes rather than on hours spent in the office. This certainly circumnavigates the issue of workplace presenteeism, but raises a significant question in its place: do the means really matter as long as the end is satisfactory?
Off the bat, one might think that an unlimited vacation system would allow for rather unlimited abuse of work absences. In fact, scholars have commented that organisational systems such as holiday allocation, designed to defend against negative behaviour, actually fosters the very attitudes that it is designed to counter. The Society for Human Resource Management has commented that this type of system “works really well in high performing organisation.” In spite of the inarguable benefits of this system, including my dream holiday to South America, it’s clear that this sort of policy would be difficult to implement in blue collar environments, target driven sectors such as sales, and for the many workers who are paid hourly.
Proponents of the policy say that it enhances teamwork and highlight that the policy is contingent on the trust that employees take vacation when their work is done and that the company is not damaged by their taking time off. This movement toward employee autonomy and freedom is increasing in many environments and is attractive to many for obvious reasons. Just as it would be a recruiter’s dream to attract candidates with the words ‘unlimited vacation time,’ companies promoting this mindset have high performance expectations, visible in Netflix’s “adequate performance gets a generous severance package” promise. The very essence deregulation can enhance flexibility and allows a company to show trust in their employees, but in can also have the reverse effect: employees might take less vacation time due to social pressures, an inability to decide what the right number of days to take is, and organisational justice – the extent to which employees perceive workplace procedures, interactions and outcomes to be fair.
Netflix has continued its upwards success which many companies wish to emulate – perhaps there is mileage in this unlimited vacation time. I know what I’ll be suggesting at my next review.