Could unlimited holiday work at your firm?

Or would it just give you an unlimited headache?

A workplace where employees can take as much paid time off as they want, and when they want, sounds pretty incredible.

In the US, Netflix, LinkedIn and Richard Branson’s Virgin implemented unlimited holiday policies a few years ago, and last year extended the benefit to employees working in some of their UK operations.

The practice is now starting to take hold in other UK companies, largely in tech startups and in PR and creative agencies.

But could it work in an accounting or bookkeeping practice?

One accountant who wishes to remain anonymous says that, with the deadlines of the 7th of the month for VAT, the 19th for CIS and the end of month for payroll, it’s tough enough to plan holidays at 20 days plus bank holidays. “If the staff could take as much holiday as they wanted, it would be impossible to manage.”

HR professionals are also sceptical.

Michelle Minnikin, chartered business psychologist at talent consultancy MP Squared, says: “The work of accountancy and bookkeeping firms is incredibly cyclical, so they would need to consider how this is managed to ensure that the team isn’t under-resourced. Besides, annual leave is an emotive subject at the best of times. Many teams have heated debates about who is taking the school holidays off for childcare and often compromises have to be made because you cannot have everyone off at the same time.”

A culture of trust

Nicki Bidgood, director at outsourced HR consultancy Westcountry HR, agrees that an unlimited holiday scheme isn’t right for every business.

“It’s a great idea, but there would have to be a big element of trust between the employer and their employees for it to work. The employer would also have to be confident that the work will get done, and employees would need to be loyal and hardworking and with good work ethic so that they wouldn’t abuse the policy.”

Minnikin says that the workplace culture would have to support and encourage employee autonomy and decision-making. “People managers would need to be wholeheartedly onboard with the policy as they would be managing it day-to-day.”

However, she adds: “The cynic in me suspects that the pervading culture of ‘busy’, the fear of missing something important and of being seen as replaceable, as well as peer pressure will keep employees from taking advantage of the policy. Anecdotal evidence from the US suggests that unlimited holiday policies result in employees actually taking fewer holidays.”

Minnikin also points out that employers should first of all ensure that their employees take their full statutory leave entitlement, which is 28 days (including bank holidays) for full-time staff.

Trailblazers

It would be an understatement to say that accountancy firms offering unlimited holiday are still few and far between. Google them and you’ll get a couple of hits at most.

Cardiff-based EST Accountants are one of those firms. They introduced the policy three years ago, it applies to all 19 staff and all holiday is paid.

Kate Matthews, EST’s HR director, says: “We want our team to be autonomous and self-driven. The flexibility to arrange holidays to suit their personal needs is part of our progressive culture.”

Just as is the case with requests for statutory annual leave, proposed holiday dates need to be agreed in advance with line managers. Employees also need to show that they can manage and complete their work to set deadlines, and identify and resolve any pressures created by their absence from work.

Matthews says line managers won’t sign off on a request if the employee needs to be present at work to attend a specific meeting or event, if their absence would place the wider team under undue pressure, and if the employee isn’t meeting their targets or their standard of work is unsatisfactory.

“Other than that, we take a relaxed approach. We’ve deliberately not created too many restrictions as we don’t want to make it difficult for the holiday to be taken,” she adds.

But do some people take liberties and disappear for weeks on end? Not in EST’s experience.

“The team definitely take more than the statutory entitlement each year, 20% more as a minimum in most cases. But this varies and is not a consistent figure per employee per year, which is in line with the intention of the scheme,” says Matthews.

She adds: “Our team are very good at self-regulating, but if there was an issue with it being abused, we would address it openly and honestly on an individual basis.”

What does the future hold?

So, is this the way to go for accountants who want to promote an open, transparent, respectful and trusting workplace culture?

Minnikin still thinks it’s a potential minefield. “Before stepping into it, I would advise employers to implement a flexible working policy and allow their staff to decide how they get their job done and the times and places to suit them.

The world of work is changing so employers should adapt if they want to attract and retain the talent they need.”

Carl Reader, director at accountancy firm Dennis & Turnbull, believes that in future accountancy employers should stop counting the days their staff work and look at what they produce instead:

“We should head towards ‘ROWE’ – results only work environment, where staff performance is determined and managed on outputs rather than inputs, on their contribution to the P&L, rather than on the number of hours, days and weeks worked. This could then facilitate flexibility around holidays.”

However, he points out that most businesses don’t as yet have the necessary systems to monitor employee output accurately. “It’s relatively easy to see if someone is sat at their desk for eight hours; it’s much tougher to quantify the level of output over that time.”

Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.

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