I have just read that a law firm in Norwich has decided to give its employees an unlimited amount of paid time off. The article says the employees can take time off whenever they want, provided it fits in with the rest of their team. This follows a high profile decision of Virgin to do something similar.

Virgin has a policy which permits salaried employees to take time off whenever they want and for as long as they want. This sounds too good to be true and, in reality, it is. According to the Virgin website, 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!

The onus is therefore on the employee to decide if he or she can take the holiday. The assumption (or condition) applied by Virgin is actually fairly onerous. In this regard:

  • The employee has to be a hundred per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project. In most work places, when will this happen? Work is not generally something that has a defined end and it is difficult to say that any worker is ever 100% comfortable that they are up to date on every project.
  • Is it fair to ask employees to judge that their absence will not in any way damage the business? How much damage has to be caused? Most businesses would run better if all employees were always at work but we don’t expect this.
  • The last point is an even more difficult one for employees to judge. An employee has to be 100% comfortable that their absence will not damage their careers. It takes a bold employee to take an extra 6 weeks off in the summer and then come back asking for promotion or a pay rise.

Virgin is not the only large company to move away from fixed holidays. Netflix and a number of other American companies have also gone down this route. This is interesting given the paid holiday situation in the US. In 1997, I spent a year working for an American law firm in Orlando. My contract allowed me to take 10 days paid holiday per year. After getting over the initial shock, I negotiated some unpaid leave.

However, there seemed to be a culture in the US which meant that, not only were paid holiday allowances very modest (I think 10 days is about the average) but also, employees didn’t even take all of their paid holiday. A recent article reported that 40% of American employees do not take their full holiday entitlement. This suggests to me that there is an overt or hidden pressure not to take time off in the US.

I would be interested to hear from readers whether you think that this new freedom on holidays is a good idea or not? Personally, I am not convinced and would need to be persuaded. I have a number of concerns including the following:

  1. I think employees generally want to know when they will be working and when they will be taking time off. Holidays are booked a long time in advance these days and I personally like to have a number of short and long breaks in the diary as something to look forward to. These will break up the working year and they are in my calendar a long time in advance. My colleagues all know when I will be out of the office and we can plan accordingly.
  2. I could not fulfil the Virgin requirement of being 100% comfortable that I am up to date on every project. In fact, I would not have been able to fulfil this condition ever since I first qualified as a solicitor. Work is continually coming in to the office and Court and Tribunal cases will be at various stages. In summary, the work is never done. I will be on top of the work and plan my schedule. However, I never reach a stage where my desk is clear and I feel I can disappear for 3 or 4 weeks.
  3. The reason for having a team is to share the work load and to cover each other when an employee is out of the office, either due to sickness or pre-planned holiday. In our firm, returning from holiday is not something to be dreaded. Team members will cover for each other and will take cases and projects forward. Sometimes, it’s harder to get the work back from a colleague who has taken over the case.
  4. As far as damaging a career is concerned, this is more likely to work the other way. An employee who is keen to climb the ladder will often try and impress his or her managers. One way to try and impress is to carry out the work efficiently but output is measured in a number of ways. In law firms, for example, a solicitor’s billable hours and income generated will be considered as a factor when he or she is applying for promotion. An employee taking a lot of time out of the office will not have the same performance as an employee who chooses to take very little holiday. If all employees take the same holiday, it is easier to make a comparison.

Given that, in America, it is reported that employees don’t take all of their holidays for fear of damage to careers, this type of holiday freedom policy seems unlikely to work.

In summary, therefore, I can see where the idea of flexible holiday comes that it is supposed to fit with a modern lifestyle. However, I think that a modern, hectic and pressured lifestyle is better suited to pre-planned and pre-booked periods of definite downtime; periods of time where the employee will take time off even if life is really busy and pressured at work.

I therefore remain to be convinced that this holiday freedom idea will actually work in practice or that this is something that employees really want.