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17 January 2019
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Future planning

8 October 2014  

He brought us Tubular Bells, the Sex Pistols, the concept of a ’megastore’ (RIP) and cheaper transatlantic travel.

But today, with his own eyes fixed on outer space, Richard Branson may just have introduced some inner torment to those managing the workplace.

Branson’s latest wheeze is to offer his Virgin employees unlimited freedom to manage their holiday time. His logic is that if the fixed office hours of 9 to 5 have been rendered meaningless by flexible working, why shouldn’t the same apply to holiday time? Each employee works out when and whether they should take their holiday, and plans it accordingly.

This is an interesting experiment in the further liberation of knowledge work staff, the dilution of corporate hierarchy and the relentless forward march of management by output. Indeed, it surely forces people to constantly assess their performance in order to justify their own decisions on when they should and shouldn’t be working.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with devolving this level of responsibility to the individual (“Empowering employees to take more responsibility can never be wrong,” says the man himself) but there are ramifications for facilities management, not least the muddying of the already very muddied waters surrounding the planning of work space requirements.

Because Branson’s high-profile announcement will add to the growing impetus surrounding flexible working as the norm; giving employees power to decide their own holidays is something that could easily trigger far greater levels of third space and home-based work. It thus has the potential to cause havoc for capacity planning, even further clouding the ability to measure dependable levels of office use. Assessing and reassessing an organisation’s office portfolio is becoming increasingly difficult, and this further element of uncertainty is not going to help. 

Could it work? Many knowledge workers talk of struggles to take existing holiday allocation around their workload as it is. And that, for some, is the problem. Reacting to the Virgin announcement, many took to social media to offer experiences of similar policies (for many, the upshot has been people taking less, not more time off).

Let’s not forget, although he’s had a lot of No.1s in the entrepreneurial hit parade, Branson has also released a few duffers. He’s a habit of going all-in on a bold new business idea, only to pull out rather sheepishly later; Virgin Cola and Virgin Mobile, each based on new business models and launched to much fanfare – only to be exposed later as fatally flawed. He was even in F1 for a brief time. Remember that?

Although this is an issue primarily for office/knowledge work and salaried employees (this kind of personal work planning is already practised by freelancers and interims), there remain generational and hierarchical barriers to overcome.

Cynics also look to the darker side, suggesting that those who take most advantage of their new freedom to take as much holiday time as they want risk being easily identified by management as the least valuable employees. And the very structure of team groups could be fatally undermined.

It all adds to the soup of influencing factors making the planning of future office requirements ever trickier.

Martin Read is managing editor at FM World