Self-Regulated Vacation Time: Can It Make Better Employees?

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, announced recently that he was following NetFlix’s lead and offering salaried employees unlimited vacation time. What’s more, he won’t even require that employees get approval from a manager before taking the time off, providing that employees complete all their work on time and with quality results. For a travel aficionado like me, this arrangement sounds like pure bliss.

Branson pointed out that having such a policy might help combat the “draconian” overworking of American and British employees. But he also notes that the policy of unlimited, self-regulated vacation time could have the opposite effect: Workers might feel even more reluctant to take time off. They may feel the company is giving them the freedom to take unlimited vacation time purely as a courtesy, and that their corporate culture actually discourages vacations.

One thing I think such a policy can do is foster more responsible employees, illuminating who the real contributors are. I’ve had experience with the type of co-worker who doesn’t do much work, but just puts in many hours in the office (hours mostly spent going back and forth to the kitchen and vending machine). An unlimited vacation time policy puts the emphasis on the work delivered by each employee, and each employee’s ability to meet responsibilities on time.

In addition, having employees regulate their own vacation time trains them to be more responsible and reliable. I think of a child who grows up in a super-strict household in which even the smallest behaviors are regulated, and then suddenly that child goes to college away from home. Often, this is the kind of person who goes crazy in college because they were never forced to learn to self-regulate. They never had to tell themselves to go to school, to study, and to meet their other obligations. Your employees—especially those working in their first jobs—may be the same way if you don’t give them leeway to develop self-regulation.

Companies can offer programming for entry-level new hires that introduce them to the work world and offer guidance on how best to communicate and work with colleagues and managers, and how to take care of their personal finances, but nothing beats the real-world exercise of having to manage themselves. Along with developing more responsible employees, forcing your workforce to develop strong self-regulation ability makes practical sense. Even with an economy in recovery, most companies don’t seem eager to hire more people than they absolutely have to. Do you really want a workforce in which every employee needs a manager breathing down their back to get their work done?

Another way unlimited vacation time creates better employees is the power it gives them to pursue the things they really care about in life. Most of us have outside interests, which usually are confined to a couple hours after work or maybe just the weekend. If given the ability to take an extra few weeks to explore what makes them most happy, maybe your employees will bring more new ideas and creativity to their jobs. As I mentioned, I love to travel. I love it so much I use all my vacation time to work as a travel writer. The trips I take and the articles I write have developed my writing skills, and have taught me about people and cultures I had never experienced before. I can take that knowledge and apply it to my writing for Training and to my full-time job as a health trade publication writer.

Most companies strive for having highly engaged employees. Having a measly two weeks of vacation time plus a few personal days makes some of us feel like we’re in prison, or at the very least, on parole. Feeling confined rarely leads to innovative thinking and enthusiasm. Why not set your employees free to decide for themselves how much time off they can take while still meeting their responsibilities? You might be surprised that your employees can not only handle this privilege, but thrive with it.

Do you think your company would ever enact an unlimited, self-regulated vacation policy? What are some of the barriers to implementing such a system, and how can training help get around those challenges?