Richard Branson, the British founder of Virgin Group, has a low opinion of time-off practices at American companies.
“I mean…the amount of holiday that people get when they work for American companies, I think, is something of a disgrace,” he told an audience at the Qualtrics X4 Experience Management Summit in Salt Lake City on March 6. “How are you going to find any real time with your children or your partner, real quality time,” he asked, “if you have, really, no holiday time?”
Branson didn’t cite any statistics, but they are on his side: Private-sector employees in the US receive an average of 16 paid vacation days, including public holidays. That’s about half of what employees in many Europeans countries can expect. Meanwhile, one in four Americans don’t get any paid time off at all, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
“We encourage all our companies to give indefinite holiday time, paid,” Branson said in an on-stage interview. “If somebody wants to go off for two months, they can,” he said, later adding, “If there’s a wedding or a funeral, they don’t have to ask, they can take the day off.”
When you treat employees like adults this way, he continued, “they give 100% back” and become more loyal to the company. “They respect you,” he says.
“How awful to work for a company that doesn’t have massive loyalty from the people who work there,” he mused.
Granted, the Virgin empire—which began with a record business and expanded to include airlines, a space company, a mobile-phone service, hotels, and, soon, a cruise-ship business—began without much thought given to formal work-life policies or benefits. It was started by a bunch of teenage hippies, says Branson, who just wanted to “create something we could be proud of.” The working environment was “very friendly” from the beginning.
But he understands that’s the not case for every organization. Some firms still force people to wear ties, he said, incredulously. If that’s the case, he recommends taking a reasoned, gentle approach to introducing change. “If you feel that your company is not behaving in a way I’ve spoken about … you know, by all means quote this interview,” he said.”But try to get change within your company and ask the company to experiment for a year and see how it goes.”
He called on managers to be more adventurous in their approach to policies and remove restrictions that keep people from being their “full, individual selves” at work. (And yet ironically, Virgin Atlantic decided only recently to allow its flight attendants to work without wearing makeup.)
To be sure, not everyone believes unlimited vacation policies live up to the promise embedded in the name. As Quartz at Work has reported, when you can take as much time off as you want, some people feel guilty taking any. Not knowing where the real boundaries are may prompt people to overcorrect; some research shows employees with unlimited vacation take fewer days than those who work under a standard policy.
This could be a uniquely American problem, however. In a country where the government does not mandate paid vacations, expectations about what’s appropriate and what might look like employee laziness or lack of commitment are clearly skewed.