Dear Mr. Branson,
Recently you published a post on your company blog, entitled: Get Out of the Office. In short, it details your outlook on the intersection of work and life, and the extremely flexible approach you take to work in general.
As one who ventured into the world of entrepreneurship some years ago, I find we agree on many things–including much of what you wrote in this post. I believe you’re a brilliant and innovative thinker, and I’m a big fan of your down-to-earth manner. (In fact, I once wrote a piece detailing why you’re the most popular entrepreneur in the world.)
But as I read continued reading, I couldn’t help but feel that you’re gravely mistaken on a major issue.
It has to do with what you refer to as:
The unlimited leave policy.
You acknowledge that you were shocked to discover that “a third of the British working population are not taking their total annual leave allowance…[meaning] that the UK is surrendering up to 54 million days of holiday time, and instead spending it in the office.”
I agree that this is unhealthy. In the United States, this problem is even worse: One recent survey estimates that over half of the U.S. population left unused vacation time on the table last year.
Surely, this is one reason why you instituted the unlimited leave policy at Virgin Management, which states that all salaried staff are permitted to “take off whenever they want for as long as they want” and that “there is no need to ask for prior approval and neither the employees themselves nor their managers are asked or expected to keep track of their days away from the office.”
This all sounds great.
It’s the next part that worries me.
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!
Do you see anything wrong with this?
Considering the above suggestion, I ask:
Is there ever a time where you can say that you are a hundred per cent comfortable that you and your team are up to date on every project, or that your absence will not in any way damage the business?
From my perspective, the preceding section sounds like a (thinly veiled) threat.
Further, as you’ve repeatedly (and commendably) expressed, mistakes and “failures” are opportunities to learn. They make us–and our companies–better in the long run.
But if your people can’t feel comfortable that mistakes can happen when they’re gone, when will they ever feel comfortable taking time off?
You claim that Netflix is the model on which you’ve based Virgin’s policy.
But there’s a big problem with that thinking. And to be fair, it’s not just Virgin that has fallen victim to it.
A few months ago, a friend and colleague of mine explored this very topic. Barry Enderwick spent over 10 years working for Netflix before leaving to build his own company. Notice how he describes the way many companies have misapplied Netflix’s policy (taken from his piece, Why “unlimited vacation” ≠ no vacation policy”):
I feel it necessary to re-visit the core reasons behind [the Netflix “no vacation” policy] and why it may not be working for some businesses. Mainly because it shouldn’t exist. At least not in the form in which companies are implementing it.
…Sure enough, companies started to copy it calling it the “unlimited vacation” policy. That re-naming is telling, because it signals a lack of understanding of what the “no vacation policy” really is and how it came about.
The policy (or lack thereof) wasn’t born out of wanting to give a great perk to employees in effort to bolster recruiting or talent retention. It was a natural outcome of company culture…You are treated like an adult and expected to act like an adult. So, if you hire the best people you can, trust that they will do the best job they can, why would you create processes and policies that distract them from the job at-hand?
If you go back to the ultra-famous Netflix culture deck, you’ll see that the “no vacation policy” makes perfect sense–when considering the context. I sincerely believe you had this big picture in mind while developing your own strategy.
But of course, the Netflix way of doing things won’t work for most companies.
Will it work for yours? Maybe.
But in reading more about Virgin’s “unlimited leave” policy, as well as the strict caveat that comes along with it, I feel your approach works against its intent–by adding further (and undue) pressure to employees.
Of course, I don’t work for the Virgin Group (and never have). I also don’t have access to your numbers. Maybe you’ve found that this policy is working, and that employees don’t feel that implied pressure at all. Maybe they’re all getting along brilliantly–and spending more time relaxing and recharging–since this program has been instituted.
If that’s the case, I wish you hearty congratulations.
But I strongly encourage you to consider these thoughts, and to discuss them with your management teams. Take a long, hard look, not just at what’s going on now, but at the implications for the future.
Because just as you look to companies like Netflix to find fresh and innovative thinking, many of us look to you for the same.
A version of this story originally appeared on Inc.com.