Unlimited Vacations

19 January, 2015

Richard Branson’s vacation ‘non policy’ makes us rethink our approach towards taking time off

By now, I am sure that those of you who took time off during the end of the year are back in the thick of things and that all of us are working hard to ensure that we make a strong finish to FY 2015.

Speaking of time off, some of you may recall a lot of buzz a few months back around Richard Branson announcing a ‘vacation non policy’ for his HO staff at Virgin. This has got me thinking on the concept of unlimited vacations and whether this is something that would resonate at Godrej.

Richard Branson put it across rather well “Treat people as human beings, give them that flexibility, and I don’t think they’ll abuse it…”. This translates into each person being responsible for carrying out the work assigned to them, without the “shackles” of a mandated number of working hours. People can take however much leave they need to.

While this may sound a bit radical, it is not a new idea. Branson was inspired by Netflix, which has found this an effective way to recruit and engage high performing team members. In fact, today, some three percent of companies in the United States offer unlimited vacations. And the idea is catching on.

So, why are some companies turning to vacation non polices?

1. Trust

All companies that have adopted unlimited vacations or other similar polices, base it on the simple premise that if they trust their people to make major business decisions, then why not trust them to regulate their own time off? They believe that allowing people to do this will make them happier and in turn, more committed to their work, fostering the 100/0 principle – 100% accountability with 0 excuses.

Trust is a core value for us at Godrej. And we have been taking steps to modify our people policies to reflect this trust. A couple of years ago, we moved to a system of unlimited sick leave for all our managers in India, because, if someone falls ill and needs time off, then as a company, we want to be able to support them as much as we can. And we trust them to not misuse this benefit. Earlier, we used to offer 10 days of sick leave in a year, most of which ended up being used. Over the last couple of years since we have made it unlimited, our team members at GCPL have, on average, taken around 2 days of sick leave a year.

2. Fostering a ‘whole self’

We have moved on from the debate around work-life balance, to work-life continuum (work is a part of life, so I personally find this work-life balance debate a bit perplexing). Working from nine to five is, in many places, a thing of the past. What comes next? The Netflix policy manual explains their stance on unlimited vacations as the next logical step after flexible working hours: “We should focus on what people get done, not on how many hours or days worked. Just as we don’t have a nine-to-five policy, we don’t need a vacation policy.”

At Godrej too, we have been offering multiple options to craft your own work schedules through flexible working hours, part-time work and work-from-home options. These are part of the efforts to build on the ‘Whole Self’ pillar of our people philosophy. We believe that happy, rounded, people, who are able to fulfil their passions in life, will make for better Godrejites.

3. Encouraging people to actually take time off

A little known fact till recently – studies show that in the United States, more than a quarter of vacation days actually go unused.

We have seen this in our own company as well. If you take a look at the data on Consolidated Privilege Leave availed across GCPL in 2014, on average, our team members used around 60 percent of the leave. And this is after we did away with our leave encashment policy, to emphasise that leave is important for its own sake and that people should take time off to unwind, recharge their batteries and experience life to the fullest.

There is a flip side to this. There are some of our team members who view the leave quota as an entitlement. This manifests itself typically in March when we see a spike in leave requests from some people. Now we all know that March is the busiest time of the year and not the best time to take leave, unless it is necessary. But when we have asked those people in the past why they want to take leave in March, they have said that they have left over leave days and they want to finish their entitlement before the year ends. And while one can’t really fault them from thinking this way (because this is one of the unintended consequences of our policies), this is not 100/0 behaviour.

So, should we consider something like unlimited vacations at Godrej?

Core to a change of this sort – we all have to commit to 100/0 and live by it in all respects. This entails:

  1. Taking full responsibility and doing whatever it takes to get our work done (including working late nights or on weekends, whenever it is required)
  2. Being self motivated and self-directed
  3. Clear communicating with our team members on project status
  4. Being heavy handed with anyone who misuses the system (zero tolerance for anyone who does not act in the company’s best interests)

But even as we think through our readiness and maturity as an organisation to contemplate this, there are a couple of other related items, which I have often heard and which we could probably address sooner – supervisors getting messages about people’s attendance being regularised when cards have not been swiped, recording outdoor duty etc. As we move towards a more trust based, self–motivated approach, is all of this really necessary?

We take much pride in being recognised as an inspiring place to work. If we want to take this a step further, become truly world-class and nurture the best global talent, then we will need our people policies and practices to evolve in line with these aspirations. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these ideas and what you think we need to do differently.


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