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Will Virgin staff really be allowed to take ‘as much holiday as they want’?

This week Richard Branson announced that Virgin would no longer be tracking people’s holidays. The move was apparently inspired by Netflix, who have similarly instigated a “no holiday policy” policy, which permits all salaried staff to ‘take off whenever they want for as long as they want.’ According to Branson, the idea came to him via his daughter, Holly, who sent him the following cheery email about Netflix, sounding suspiciously like a copywriter from Virgin’s media team:

Dad, check this out. It’s something I have been talking about for a while and I believe it would be a very Virgin thing to do to not track people’s holidays. I have a friend whose company has done the same thing and they’ve apparently experienced a marked upward spike in everything – morale, creativity and productivity have all gone through the roof.

Setting aside the fact that this seems like a cynical attempt at ‘humanising’ what may turn out to be an incredibly nefarious policy decision, and that Branson might be using his daughter as a placating mouthpiece for something that was actually dreamt up in Virgin’s intergalactic HQ, let us ask: would this practice really work?

The introduction of the policy means that employees will no longer need to ask for prior approval to take leave, and that neither the employees themselves nor their managers are asked or expected to keep track of their days away from the office. Crucially;

It is left to the employee alone to decide if and when he or she feels like taking a few hours, a day, a week or a month off, the assumption being that they 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!

This, to me, sounds extremely ominous for reasons that I will expand upon later. As well as this, it appears to be prima facie unworkable. Firstly, there are significant disanalogies between the companies Netflix and Virgin that could mean a ‘successful’ policy at one doesn’t automatically translate into a successful policy at another. The sizes of the companies differs dramatically – Netflix has 2,000 employees and is focused on providing one single service, while Virgin has 50,000 employees with dozens of subsidiary companies providing services as diverse as broadband, trains, and space travel…The ‘take as much time off as you want’ approach seems better suited to a smaller company like Netflix where employees are likely to have a better idea of each other’s workloads and schedules, and so may be more comfortable in assessing whether their absence would “damage the business” – a problematically abstract and nebulous notion in the first instance. Further, Branson has stated that the policy would first be implemented in the US and UK Virgin ‘parent company’ (which I presume is the one that covers travel, entertainment and lifestyle), but that, if successful, would be encouraged among all the subsidiary companies. This of course includes Virgin Care, Branson’s foray into health care provision, which has the largest number of contracts with the NHS and currently runs over 100 of its services. Assuming of course that the policy would apply only to Virgin Care employees working in the head office, it still doesn’t strike me as unreasonable to worry about what effects this could turn out to have on health care provision.

It seems plausible that this ‘unlimited holiday’ policy could turn out to limit employee holiday beyond that which they are statutorily entitled to. Branson’s message that employees may take as much leave as they want only if 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,” seems to be an unfeasibly high standard. It is unlikely that anyone ever feels “100%” comfortable – a notion that implies absolute certainty – that they are ready to take leave, when they do. People know when they take holiday, no matter how many loose ends they manage to tie up, that there will be a mountain of work to come back to; that is simply the nature of leave, you are putting your work on hold, but its accumulation is inevitable and beyond your control. If they were following Branson’s guidelines of being 100% comfortable, it seems likely they wouldn’t go at all, or, at the very least, would be overly remorseful about going. Feelings of guilt surrounding holiday leave could increase, leading to stress and decreased productivity in the long run, if workers end up not taking sufficient leave. This unease about taking leave could be compounded by pressure arising from fellow workers, line managers, and office gossip concerning who was off when, and for how long. Office dynamics such as these are inescapable and are arguably a huge influence on worker behaviour and interaction. Anecdotally speaking, such pressure already arises in contexts such as the time employees feel able to leave work. Far from being determined by contracted hours, I found that the office culture and the time my fellow colleagues were leaving, were huge factors in determining what time I felt able to leave work for the day, in various jobs that I have been in. Particularly in the corporate sector, there is a culture of working late, and it is not difficult to see how this could translate into a “no holiday” culture at Virgin, as a result of workers competing against each other in the quest for promotion. Similarly, if the feelings of safety and entitlement that statutory leave affords are removed, people may feel prevented from taking the leave they require for fear of appearing lazy, or feeling that ‘everyone would notice.’ Essentially, you would no longer have your legal entitlement to fall back on. Perhaps then, the policy would result in a sort of paralysis, where workers did not feel able to take their entitled leave, or, they might continue to use their statutory requirements as a guideline, and the policy will have been otiose.

Branson’s motivation, however, is that the traditional conceptions of being “on the job” and “off” have been rendered obsolete. He cites the concerns raised by Netflix employees, who apparently asked:

how their new technology-controlled time on the job (working at all kinds of hours at home and/or everywhere they receive a business text or email) could be reconciled with the company’s old-fashioned time-off policy. That is to say, if Netflix was no longer able to accurately track employees’ total time on the job, why should it apply a different and outmoded standard to their time away from it?

The basic thought behind this is, I think, that working in the age of technology has meant that the distinction between being off/at work has been blurred. Therefore, as employees are working remotely, or hours other than their contracted hours, certain companies have developed a culture where the focus is now on “what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked.” I suppose the intention is also that if the work can be done in less time than the 9-5 work day, then employees should clock off ‘early’. So, for Netflix, this relaxation of the 9-5 work day is what led them to adopt their new holiday policy:

Just as we don’t have a nine-to-five policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.

However, a potentially problematic corollary of having no set working hours is that all hours are feasibly potential working hours. The approach of ‘letting the employee choose when to work as long as they are sure their absence will not affect the business’ invokes panopticon-like self-regulation on the part of the worker. On this view, workers are subject to a Foucauldian “unequal gaze” whereby they cannot ever be sure whether or not their working hours are being monitored by their employer, causing them internalise this scrutiny and become self-disciplining, with potentially deleterious effects. There is a reason that we have employment law in the first place. Workers are entitled to a minimum amount of statutory paid annual leave because we view periods of health and leisure as critical to their mental and physical health. Removing this enshrined right arguably requires further argument and justification than has not yet been provided, and it would be interesting to see the legal ramifications of this policy. After all, almost all workers are entitled to 28 days paid leave, the only exceptions being the self-employed, and those working in share fishing, merchant shipping, and mobile workers on inland waterways. It is also important to remember that in making such a move, Virgin are primarily concerned with increasing productivity and shareholder returns rather than their workers’ interests – increased moralecreativity and productivity are cited as the desired results of the policy in Branson’s daughter’s email, all of which can come apart from, and exist independently of, worker well-being. I am doubtful, therefore, as to whether being ‘able to take as much holiday as they want’ is either the intention or the probable outcome of Branson’s no holiday policy.


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2 Comment on this post

  1. I was already leaning a bit toward your point, but you convinced me all the way down from my initial sympathy to the conclusion. Thank you for this post!

  2. Gulzaar,

    These are some strong reasons to be suspicious of Virgin’s move, I’d agree. But this is partly an empirical question – would flexible/untracked vacation positively or negatively impact employee well-being? One way of measuring this would be to see whether, when companies like Netflix introduce the policy, average number of vacation days taken goes down significantly. That’d be good evidence of the dangers of colleague pressure and the like effectively forcing people to sacrifice personal and family interests for the sake of the company. Additionally, we could look at worker and stress levels and see what the policy does to those.

    There has been some research on these effects for more common flextime policies (rejection of strict 9-5 hours). The research I’ve come across in a quick search, actually, seems quite positive: ; . Flexibility does seem to allow for people to better manage the work-life balance, be less stressed about work, etc. To be sure, the studies *also* found the effect of people working more hours (probably without a pay raise, meaning an effective cut in hourly wage). But it’s at least plausible the well-being gains outweigh that. In addition, my understanding is that flextime is quite popular among employees – there’s some reason to think they value the well-being gains over effective rise in worktime (personal anecdote, kinda contrary to yours: I’ve found workplaces with more flexible hours much more appealing and less stressful). That’s not decisive (employees could be being duped concerning the policy’s advantages), but it’s at least relevant.

    But maybe the well-being benefits of flextime won’t accrue to non-tracked vacation policies, while the costs (fewer vacation days taken) will. It’d be good to measure this, anyway. Hopefully, as more companies adopt flexible vacation policies, we’ll see some stronger research produced on its effects (or maybe it’s out there already, beyond the reach of my Google-fu).

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