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Richard Branson just needs to give Virgin staff a proper break

By Simon Kelner

It's the corporate equivalent of an honesty box. Virgin's announcement that it is considering giving employees the right to take unlimited holidays is another Richard Branson initiative that is designed to burnish his reputation as an innovative, forward-thinking and publicity-savvy business leader, but it's also a policy which squarely places an extra responsibility on the workers.

For his employees, it's a complicated and nuanced equation. In theory, it's modern working practice, redolent of a new-age dot-com business, but in reality it leaves too much within the realms of uncertainty, placing an added burden on the individual worker.

Choice means anxiety. How much holiday is too much?

There are no guidelines, other than what we imagine our colleagues will think of us if we're consistently absent from our workstations.

We are blighted by too much choice in almost every aspect of our day-to-day lives and now here's another thing – an important thing, too – that relies on us to exercise discretion.

Employees like to understand their rights and responsibilities and need to feel that their welfare is of interest to employers.

But what they really want in terms of benefits is an entitlement rather than an option.

Branson got the idea from the online entertainment company Netflix, which operates a similar scheme successfully.

However, staff can only bunk off, Sir Richard added, when "they feel 100% 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".

Hands up anyone who has ever – ever – felt "100% comfortable" that they are completely on top of things before going on holiday.

And this bring us to a more disquieting aspect of this whole discussion: the blurring of the lines between work and play for the modern white-collar worker. Sir Richard, and other bosses who may be thinking the same way, do so in the knowledge that, even when their staff are out of the office, they are still working, virtually chained to their desks by their smartphones.

A far more effective way of ensuring that employees are happy, healthy and hard-working is not to make a specious offer about pick 'n' mix holidays, but to lay down a directive – as a number of French companies have done – that emails are banned during vacation time.

In that way, five weeks' holiday means just that.

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