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Unlimited Vacation

With unlimited vacation, when will the work get done?

Richard Branson, the Virgin Group founder, was in the news recently as he had taken the bold move of giving his staff unlimited vacation time. But he is not the first to take such an enlightened step. A growing number of organisations are finding that by trusting their staff, the rewards to the business in terms of improved productivity and reduced staff turnover are significant and far outweigh any perceived risk.

And it’s not just more holiday time, how about a 4 day week or the ability to work where you want, when you want? These ideas are not as extreme as they first sound. They bring significant benefit to the organisation and support really positive employee behaviours. The way to really make a step change in performance as an organisation is to unlock the human capital value (the acquired and inherent knowledge, skills, enthusiasm and potential) of the employees to the benefit of the business.

Improving employee interaction, showing them trust, treating them like adults (see Reeducation, Reeducation Reeducation) and empowering them as individuals to make their own choices in how and when to work are all useful strategies for achieving this. In this article we explore steps being taken in the workplace by leading organisations to fundamentally change the relationship between employer and employee.

Unlimited Vacation

Sounds crazy doesn’t it. Give my employees unlimited paid time off whenever they want it! Virgin Group have taken this bold step for their 170 employees but the benefits are already proven. Aptify, a Virginia based software company found burnout due to the long hours worked was a major issue for employees. After implementing a new unlimited vacation policy surprisingly they found no one abused it. Most took the same number of days off as before and spaced them more evenly during the year. They found that employee morale improved with boosts to both productivity and profitability.

Aptify are not alone, Netflix and UK based software firm WANdisco also run similar schemes with equally positive results. Bruce Elliott of the Society for Human Resource Management pointed out that this policy can be especially useful for companies with more project-oriented work. Employees generally self-elected to take time off when a project was finished before the next one starts.

4 day week

But why stop at unlimited vacation – how about trying a 4 day week? It sounds idyllic; how often have you yearned for a three day weekend? Rather than a corresponding drop in productivity, as Esther Lombardi writes on, working fewer hours actually increases not just morale but overall productivity.

It was found that with less time to accomplish the work workers focussed more on what was important. Add that to improvements in worker health (less sick time off) and improved staff retention the policy stacks up financially. Philip Sopher in his article for the Atlantic quotes Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp (who have implemented a 4 day week for half the year),

“Better work gets done in four days than in five”

The activity based office

You don’t have to change working hours to have a marked effect on your employees and the culture of your organisation. A re planning or redesign of your office can also have an impact. A change to a more flexible activity based layout can be much more supportive of the functions undertaken by the people within the office and significantly improve morale. (See Why has modern office design not kept pace with the workforce?).

By analysing the activities performed by your staff during the working week and designing your office to provide the correct balance of space to support these activities, staff are weaned off the need to sit at the same place each week. They also become much more mobile within the office, improving employee health. Not only is the space required reduced due to staff mobility, by empowering your workforce to choose the most appropriate work area from which to perform the task in hand, interaction and morale are improved with corresponding gains to productivity,  improvements in staff retention and reductions in absenteeism.

Work when you want, where you want

Management by output is recognised as essential if you are to fully realise the benefits of an agile working programme. To take things to the extreme, however, how about letting your employees work when they want, where they want, providing they get their work done?

Best Buy in the US, however, took it to the next level. Best Buy adopted “ROWE” or the Results-Only Work Environment.  Developed by then employees Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, the policy allowed employees to work from wherever they felt appropriate and at whatever time. In return for this employees were expected to perform and achieve a clear defined set of output criteria.

The initial benefits claimed by the ROWE team were significant, voluntary turnover rates went down 90%, and team productivity increased by 41%. Employees were less stressed and felt in control of their lives. However, a new CEO at Best Buy, Hubert Joly, was not convinced. He believed that ROWE was “fundamentally flawed from a leadership point of view” as it assumes that the only correct leadership style is delegation. He felt ROWE in its purest form didn’t allow flexibility for the more coaching, motivational or directional leadership styles which were needed in some roles and by some staff.

The ROWE experiment at Best Buy was duly cancelled. That said, Ressler and Thompson have continued to enjoy success with the implementation of ROWE for a number of other organisations (see


The appetite for change in the workplace is growing. A significant number of companies are adopting innovative design, new working practices and management policies to empower their employees and get the best out of them.

The results are impressive and any organisation hoping to be successful in the modern world needs to explore them when considering how they change and evolve. What is right for one organisation, however, is not necessarily right for another. It is important to take time to understand how you work, what your future needs are and most important of all, how you want to be as an organisation in the future.

Learn from what leading organisations are doing but then tailor the strategy to meet your own needs and your own unique circumstance. The results for ROWE for instance are impressive but is it right for your organisation, your employees, your managers and most of all your customers? Just because the latest shiny new office trend pedalled by the workplace industry works for others does not make it necessarily right for you.

Further reading:

Unlimited Vacation

The 4-Day Week

Activity Based Working

The ROWE model and Case Studies

Reviews of ROWE:

We will look explore both the new management practices and the change process necessary to support the transformation in future articles.

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Colin Stuart
Colin Stuart is the founding Director of Baker Stuart and has more than 25 years’ experience in workplace analytics and consultancy. With a passion for creating spaces that work for people but based on evidence not on conjecture, Colin has helped deliver significant cost reductions whilst improving business performance and staff satisfaction.
About Baker Stuart

We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, move management, project management and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.


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