Freedoms or Fetters? – Unlimited Annual Leave

Gem Reucroft was blogging last week about the importance of trust in the employment relationship. As you would expect, it was a typically thought provoking and timely piece which prompted me to think about trust more broadly. Many of the big workplace stories of the last few years have been about corporate governance and poor – often deceitful behaviour – at senior levels in organisations. Trust has also been fundamental in our shared attempts at moving away from HR being the workplace ‘policeman’ who, on the assumption that people can’t be trusted, maintains good order through a framework of employee policies that casts a shadow of the gallows. “We know some of you are going to break the rules and, when you do, we will get you. The others will be kept in line by seeing what happens to you and wanting to avoid the same fate…”

Fast forward to September 2014 and we can see trust being raised again in the discussion around the story that Richard Branson is to allow his “personal staff” to take as much leave as they wanted to. I say the discussion because I don’t want to get too wrapped up in the actual announcement: apparently it was the idea of Netflix not Branson, he has a new book coming out that he wants to promote etc. We are all familiar with the obsession of some to talk about the difference between the public and private sector and, specifically, whether private sector principles can be imported into the more genteel world of the public sector. This discussion though highlights another really interesting question: can the freedoms of self-employment be brought into the world of the employer/employee relationship?

The Dilbert cartoon that appears above this piece has, like all the best satire, an element of truth about it. There is a way of looking at this idea that smacks of exploitation. I remember the story of the company that gave all of its employees free laptops because it found that it resulted in people working another 15 hours a week at home for no extra pay. The story probably wasn’t true, but it is proof that the notion of squeezing more out of workers being wrapper up in “greater freedoms” is not a new one. The insistence of some workers to be seen staying late or always have the “last say” on email exchanges that take place over a weekend is also proof that people are still willing to play this game – at least for now.

Beyond that though I think there is a case to suggest that looking at some of the freedoms enjoyed by the self-employed is an interesting way into other questions about engagement and satisfaction at work. If an employee is prompted to really think “what would the impact be if I didn’t come in tomorrow?” how would that help them to re-frame their job satisfaction, sense of belonging and sense of owning the work that they are involved in? Going even further, what would the consequence be of an individual or team setting up a project or piece of work in such a way that it could operate without them being there all the time to make sure it did. How far could this move people off the back foot and fire-fighting if they knew that they could take some time off at a point of their own choosing if they put the extra work in early on?

There is the risk though that this is another issue about which we could all agree a long list of potential benefits and then have a very short but irresistible conversation about the downside. “They would just abuse it wouldn’t they?”, “it could never be fair and equitable”, “who answers the phone when they aren’t there?”. Ultimately, “it would be nice, but we couldn’t trust people to do it. Instead we are going to allow them a maximum number of days leave.”

I struggle to see how unlimited annual leave would work in large areas which depend on people being physically present to do work or else have their colleagues do it in their absence. I don’t, though, see why we couldn’t move from a “maximum” amount of annual leave to a “minimum” amount. It would defy the demonic HR cat from the cartoon and would give people who wanted it a set of parameters in which to book their leave. For others, it would allow some additional freedoms and flexibilities which would keep them focussed on the work that needed to be done rather than switching off completely.

All of this might mean that managing sickness absence would become more complex but, if you really want to get stuck into this “trust” thing, there’s a whole heap of issues to think about in that particular thorn bush…


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