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Counselor Commentary: Give Staff The Right To Choose

Let’s all agree that Richard Branson is a smart guy. When he makes key decisions – about projects, personnel or money – people pay attention.

Let’s all agree that Richard Branson is a smart guy. When he makes key decisions – about projects, personnel or money – people pay attention. That’s why culture evangelists, and many in the media, have been giggling with glee recently after Branson’s Virgin Group became the latest prominent company to adopt a non-policy (at its main offices) for paid time off. A non-policy, in this case, means employees can take unlimited vacation, as long as they get their work done.

The argument for unlimited vacation goes something like this: People who can freely take time off feel empowered, work harder and are ultimately more productive. They appreciate the trust their boss puts in them and they don’t want to let their company down. Plus, more Americans, some studies show, value perks like schedule freedom and telecommuting, more than higher salaries. On its face, this all sounds peachy. Everyone in workplace utopia is happy, and profits and sales go up.

But the reality of many companies is more like this: People do take vacation, just not all they’re allotted, because their jobs require working really hard, often at odd hours. They want their companies to do well and appreciate perks, but are afraid if they’re conspicuously out of the office they’ll get passed over for promotions, or worse replaced. They see the massive amount of money taxes and health insurance devours from their paychecks and they struggle to get ahead in an age of relative flat wages. They hope they can retire, someday, with enough money to compensate for a troubled social security system. Yeah, this ain’t utopia.

To be fair, there are absolutely employees – like many Millennials and working moms – who would jump at unlimited vacation time in lieu of more pay. And they’ll probably do just fine at getting projects finished. Their ambitions – like more time with family – are worthy. But, frankly, so are the ambitions of employees who want to get ahead, who want a higher salary, a better job title, and greater leadership responsibilities. All the vacation in the world will still leave them unsatisfied, or looking for jobs at other companies. What then can be done?  

Here’s a thought: When you hire and review employees, ask them bluntly what their goals are and what benefits they really want. If they excel, they should be offered a choice. Option #1 might include more vacation and the chance to work from home. Option #2 could include money for continuing education and a free gym membership. Option #3 might provide an employee with a higher pay grade.

These, again, are just ideas. The point, though, is that companies shouldn’t think that perks are what every employee wants most. Higher wages are good, too, and companies that offer them should be equally praised. In the U.S. economy, business owners that think cushy chairs, office video game dens and Friday margarita parties will ultimately win over all their employees are mistaken. But, culture evangelists, have no fear. You can always hop on Virgin’s first flight to outer space and do a little recruiting. Martians, after all, probably don’t have mortgages.