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Flexible Working Max?

Richard Branson has recently said that the 170 employees on his personal staff (who handle his billions) can take as much holiday as they want, when they want. He got the idea from Netflix who use a similar system, and he works on the basis that his people are excellent so they will be responsible enough to take holiday when they can – whether that be a few hours on a Friday, a week or a whole month.god As long as the work gets done well, he’s not worried where everyone is. One assumes his employees can also work securely from almost anywhere in the world, so if a crisis did blow up they could be contacted.

There are jobs which can be done on this basis, for example, employees who work to precise targets. If they meet or exceed the week’s target by Tuesday what’s wrong with having the rest of the week off? (One might have to ask whether the target is too low.) Such jobs are probably few and far between. In many cases employees have to be present a good deal of the time and there’s no question of heading off when they think they’ve done a great job. That brings us to the question of interpretation. The employee may think he’s done a great job. Does the boss agree? Tough one that ......

Many employers will fall off their chairs in horror at the prospect of unlimited self-managed holiday. I can’t entirely blame them. Most businesses simply could not function if the management do not know when their people will be out of the office and for how long – manual and service sector companies alike.

The introduction of such a benefit could be highly divisive. Holiday is very highly prized by most employees. If some people are having unlimited holiday because their job allows it and others are limited to the statutory 5.6 weeks because their job doesn’t allow it, it’s likely to lead to great resentment.

Still, a new idea of this type makes us think. Flexibility in the workplace is important. Plenty of companies have in the past and present found ways of making work more flexible. Some firms for example do not mind whether you work in the office, at home, or from a hotel lounge, as long as the work gets done well and everyone can continue to function as a team. When companies like this merge with less flexible companies, there tends to be a significant culture clash. This sort of approach does require a strong level of trust of course, and there needs to be regular points of contact and attendance onsite to ensure that employees do not take advantage of the flexibility. Key Performance Indicators are vital if employees are working from home or abroad to ensure that the work does get done to the required standard. If employees are allowed to take holiday for as long as they want, the policy needs to be worded carefully to ensure that employers can fairly manage their people if they find they are taking too much time off and at inappropriate times.

The title of this blog is a pun on what David Cameron calls ‘Devo-Max’ for Scotland – the greatest level of devolution possible without Scotland becoming independent. Arguably this is what Mr Branson’s approach equates to – the greatest level of flexibility without the employees becoming self-employed. Clearly the level of control over employees is significantly reduced, although they answer to the company over performance and conduct. Indeed, some companies may see high levels of flexibility among their employees (who cost an awful lot of money) as untenable, but using reliable self-employed people as a more cost-effective option and allowing the ‘worker’ much greater flexibility.

Ultimately it does depend on the level of control over standards required, and some firms may be prepared to go for ‘Flexi-Max’, but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Changing the culture of a company, let alone a sector, is no easy task. A more gradual change, testing out what works and balancing benefits with trust, is often a safer way to make progress.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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