It’s a policy favoured by Virgin founder Richard Branson, but Haje Jan Kamps, chief executive of UK photography equipment business Triggertrap, says letting your employees take unlimited annual leave doesn’t work.
Writing for Medium, Kamps said he was initially worried his employees would take “huge amounts of time off” when Triggertrap introduced the policy last year.
But the opposite happened: Triggertrap workers took fewer days off. While UK law requires employees be given 28 days annual leave a year, on average, Triggertap employees took just 15 days leave last year. The most annual leave taken was 22 days, while one employee took just one day off.
None of the employees took all of their legally entitled leave, let alone more than that.
“The thing is, in the UK, you tend to be told how many ‘days of holiday’ you have left on your pay slip, which means that you get a monthly reminder of how many days you’ve taken, and how many you have left,” Kamps said.
“This tends to lead to people actually taking their days off – because if you don’t take them by the end of the year, you lose them.”
But it wasn’t just the absence of annual leave hours on employees’ pay slips that was making the policy unworkable.
“The other problem we had was this: Because we weren’t explicitly tracking, people felt guilty about taking time off,” Kamps said.
“It also turns out that there was a difference in the patterns for how people took time off: Some were taking a week here and a week there, but others were just taking the odd day. The problem with the latter is that it seemed like they were always away. That’s OK, of course, but if other members of the team feel as if someone’s taking the piss, that’s bad for morale all around.”
And by the end of the year, Kamps said rather than having a team that was relaxed and well-rested, his employees were “run ragged”.
“Yes, we had a long year with lots of accomplishments and lots of crazy new things that happened – but if everyone is exhausted, we’ll never accomplish the things we’re trying to do.”
So Kamps said he went back to the drawing board, and while he is still keen to offer his employees the ability to take as many holidays as they want, he has tweaked the policy to make it more workable.
Triggertrap now tracks how many days leave employees take and shares this within the business; employees are told to remind each other to take some time off if they need to; employees must check with their team if they want to take extra time off; and if an employee takes more than 14 days off within either the first half or second half of the year, they get a cash bonus to spend on their holiday.
“So, is this the perfect solution? Who knows, but as a team, we’re continuing,” Kamps said.
Ben Watts, director at wattsnext HR, told SmartCompany this morning despite the Triggertrap experience, he still believes employers can make an unlimited annual leave policy work effectively.
“The focus needs to be on outcomes,” Watts said.
“If someone can get an outcome in three days work or four days, it doesn’t matter. The outcome of their role should be the focus.”
Watts says the sentiment behind offering employees unlimited leave is “very clever” and if explained to workers correctly, should encourage employees to work harder while they are on the clock.
“It comes down to the individual line managers or the managers of a team to talk to employees and explain the reason why the policy is there,” he says.
“It is supposed to be a win-win for both parties.”
And Watts says if businesses focus on the outcome of the employees’ work, rather than the exact number of days of leave they have taken, they shouldn’t have to “go to the level to bribe them” to take a holiday.