Flexible working: Richard Branson style

working at homeDid you hear the news that Richard Branson has said that 170 employees on his UK and US personal staff can take holidays when they like, for as long as they like, as long as the timing of their break will not have a detrimental impact on the business?

The news made headlines across the UK, and started a debate on how flexible should flexible working be.

In today’s world, with improved technology, the notion of the traditional 9-5 job, with a set number of holidays and bank holidays, is becoming increasingly old fashioned. In addition to flexible working hours and locations, certain benefits also allow employees to buy and sell holidays to suit them. Branson’s announcement of his new “non-policy” on holidays is perhaps just a more extreme version of this.


The pros of flexible working

Flexible working is now made up of many different elements – part time working, term time working, job-shares, home working, compressed hours and flexitime – and it is widely recognised, yet it brings with it both advantages and disadvantages.

There are several advantages to businesses that offer flexible working as part of their employee benefits, these include:

• Reducing absenteeism
• Improving productivity
Increasing commitment from employees
• Being able to hold onto valuable staff
• Having a wider talent pool

Flexible working might also enable businesses to improve customer service – a business could extend its opening hours for example – due to the wider availability of the workforce.

Many employees cite that flexible working gives them a better work-life balance, which enables them to spend more time with their families and friends, or to undertake hobbies or volunteer work. For parents, flexible working can reduce childcare costs, which is like getting a pay rise from their employer without it costing the employer anything. Later start times or earlier finishes mean that costs for breakfast clubs and after school childcare simply aren’t incurred. And employees who are allowed to work at home all, or part of the week, effectively receive an in kind pay rise, as they benefit from reduced fuel and car maintenance costs.


It isn’t all good news though

work life balanceThe most common problem, faced by businesses that offer flexible working, is communication. Despite all the advances of modern technology to keep us connected, communication and team working can be difficult if it is not properly thought out in advance.

Without a manager being present, some employees may find it difficult to work, especially if they feel that they need direction with their duties, or are unable to take the initiative. And not all employees are naturally self-motivated, so they may struggle to stay on focused on the task at hand, and productivity may be affected.

There’s also an additional issue: making sure there are enough staff available to cover the required hours. That’s probably why Branson’s “non-policy” on holidays doesn’t apply to all his staff: it only includes those working in Branson’s family office, his investment team, marketing, brand and PR teams and the Virgin Unite foundation.


It can bring major advances for the business

Flexible working, the type where the employee gets to choose how to spend their time, has been big in tech industries for a long time. For example, Google allows their employees to spend 20% of their time on projects that are not directly related to their normal job. And according to Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, this policy has led to some of the company’s “most significant advances”. Google employees have generated a number of software applications that we use day in and day out such as Gmail, Google Talk and Google News during this “20% time”.

Yet there is a certain sense of where Branson goes others will follow, and it is interesting that the Institute of Directors (IoD), which represents employers, has said recently that it was considering surveying members for their reactions to Branson’s new policy. If they do, it will certainly be interesting to see the results. What do you think?


John Sylvester

John is responsible for the motivation division of p&mm ltd and a Director on the board of the IPM. Specialising in developing, implementing and directing many large scale staff motivation, recognition and employee communications programmes.
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