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Flexible or unlimited holidays?

Holiday what employees really want

Flexibility has come to be a key issue in recent years.  This is very much the case when it comes to holidays, as flexible leave policies allow employees to buy or sell annual leave (subject, of course to everyone still taking their statutory minimum rest).  This isn’t a new trend. A few years back, “duvet days” were all the rage. Companies offered their staff an extra day or so each year on which they could choose to stay at home under the duvet, without having to call in sick.  Another popular idea is offering an extra day’s holiday on an employee’s birthday.

More radically, we’ve seen some companies experimenting with “unlimited” holiday – most famously Virgin (although only a tiny proportion of their global workforce are actually eligible).  There are no contract entitlements, but instead an ability to take as much leave as you want and need – usually within certain parameters such as all your work being up to date.  Although this idea sounds great in theory (for employees at least), for many organisations it simply isn’t practical to work this way.

Looking beyond the trends and hype, what do employees really want from benefits – and holidays in particular?  Well in my experience it is flexibility that most people want. It used to be thought that only working parents were interested in having options to flex their working arrangements but in truth, most of us need flexibility from time to time, whether it is to attend junior’s school play or just to wait in for the plumber.  Whatever the family situation, changes in demographics mean that people are living and working longer and soon we will have five generations in the workplace at any one time. Stereotypes about each of the different generations at work abound (and I’m sceptical about most), but one thing is true: when it comes to benefits, one size does not fit all. Someone nearing retirement will have very different priorities to the recent graduate paying off a student loan or the first-time parent. So flexibility in terms of benefits will continue to be critical.

I have four key suggestions for managing flexible benefits:

  • Don’t assume – ask! You will have data already about which benefits people are opting for – but this is only part of the story.  Low take up doesn’t mean the benefit isn’t worthwhile – it just means it is only valued by a few employees, which is just fine.  The only way of really understanding what your employees want is to ask them.


  • Make your offering as wide as possible. Your employees are individual and have individual circumstances and needs.  Your demographics will give you some idea of what will be valued by your people.  There will no doubt be a little more administration to do as you add more offerings into you benefits mix.  But if you get it right, this will be outweighed by the engagement you will get in return.


  • Get innovative! Cycle to Work schemes and childcare vouchers no longer set you apart – they are simply average.  Negotiate with local companies and providers for discounts.  Look at your own products and services and make them available to your people. Scan the market to see what is new.


  • Beware the law of unintended consequences. Think through the behaviours you are seeking to encourage. Allowing people to swap most of their leave for cash might lead to an increase in sickness absence if people aren’t getting enough of a break from work.


Most importantly of all, you might not be able to offer unlimited days off or duvet days, but with a bit of thought you can offer what people value most of all: flexibility and choice.


Tim Scott describes himself as a People Director, Social media enthusiast, HR writer and speaker. Prior to founding The Work Consultancy, he spent 20 years in HR roles across a variety of sectors, successfully leading People and OD teams to work with senior management teams and Boards to transform our organisations’ people practices.

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