The Last Word

January 17, 2013 3:32 pm

Unlimited holidays that inspire hard work

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Peak time: staff do not abuse unmetered time off

When many people go for jobs, one of the points of negotiation is usually holiday allowance.

Not so at the Sheffield and Silicon Valley software company, Wandisco. “Our people often work evenings and weekends and you don’t need to stand over them with a stick,” explains chief executive David Richards. “They’re very committed anyway, so why do you need to restrict the amount of time they can take off?”

Evernote, the Silicon Valley-based note-taking service for cloud storage and sharing, takes a similar stance. Chief executive Phil Libin explains: “Getting a job at Evernote is tough and people want to be there. If you take the attitude that being in the office isn’t a punishment, then spending days outside the office isn’t a reward.”

The thinking at LRN, an New York-based advisory services firm, is similar. “Trust is hugely important in working relationships and allowing people to take as much holiday as they want is part of that,” says Michael Salvarezza, an executive at the company.

Mr Libin says switching to an unlimited holiday policy is easy because conventional models require a lot of management time.

“So we suddenly said: ‘Do what you want. And we won’t track it’,” he says. “In hindsight it was stupid that we ever had a vacation policy. We only ever had one because people say you should.”

Limitless holiday is prevalent among technology businesses – Netflix is a famous exponent – but not limited to them. Chicago-based events company Red Frog also offers it, as does the UK-based human resources consultancy Inbucon.

“If people are committed it could work almost anywhere,” says Mr Richards.

Unmetered holiday tends to be part of an overall organisational culture: at LRN, expenses are paid without vetting, while Evernote offers free electric cars and monthly housecleaning to ease employees’ lives.

The obvious fear about unlimited holiday is that it will be abused. But proponents say this does not happen. Mr Richards says the average number of days taken off a year is just 16.

Mr Libin sees a similar trend. “It may even have dropped a little, but as we don’t track it, we don’t know,” he says. “I do know however, that no one has ever taken advantage of it.”

Equally, no one has used the policy to spend as little time engaged with the company as possible. “Theoretically, you could get a superman who does a year’s work in two weeks, and then takes 50 weeks off,” he says.

“But work shouldn’t be like that. It should be about feeling part of something.”

This may be the biggest reason these holiday policies work – the employees tend to be committed workers who enjoy what they do.

Mr Richards says: “Every single person at Wandisco is a shareholder – they all feel part of the business.”

However, Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, says an unlimited holiday policy can backfire if handled poorly.

“I like it, but it could be divisive if it’s not open to everyone,” he says. “You also need to ensure that people agree the holiday with those they work with so they don’t affect their performance and productivity.

“The company also has to mean it. You see a lot of organisations that say you have the right to work flexibly, but it rarely happens in practice.”

This may be why Evernote went one step further when it discovered that many employees were not taking enough time off: it offered an incentive for staff to take a break.

“We said, ‘go somewhere interesting for at least a week and we’ll give you $1,000 of spending money’,” Mr Libin explains. “Just to show we really do want you to take vacations.”

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