Why organisations should have ‘compulsory’ leaves instead of ‘unlimited’

HR experts point out the impracticality of unlimited leaves and the need to strike a balance.

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Some new-age companies, such as Netflix, LinkedIn, Kronos and GitHub, have been making a lot of noise claiming to have granted unlimited leaves to their workforces. Quite an incentive to attract the new gen employees, considering it gives an impression of increased autonomy and workplace flexibility.

However, what seems to be flexible may not really be so. In fact, it is rather impractical.

Issues

Ravi Mishra, senior vice president – HR, Aditya Birla Chemicals, quite sardonically comments, “I don’t think unlimited policy is a workable policy anywhere in the world, irrespective of the organisation’s design and framework. A holiday will not be a benefit, if it is free for all and can be availed by anyone at any time.”

A compiled research done by the Sage Business Researcher shows that the employees offered unlimited vacations have taken less time off. Why does this happen?

Visibility: Employees feel guilty even if they have been working for the standard eight hours per day. They may want to conform to the work ethics of their colleagues, and limit their leaves so that the manager appreciates their work too. After all, visibility matters.

Brownie points: Often the ‘vacation martyrs’ are favoured more than the ones who frequently take time off, even if they produce quality output. On the other hand, if an employee, within a team, takes an off on a random day of his/her choice, the burden of the work shifts to another employee.

Animosity and burnout: A feeling of animosity or resentment may arise among team members. This becomes a complicated issue, particularly if the team consists of very few people, skilled and specialised for a particular task. Irrespective of the size of the organisation, there is a microcosm of smaller teams with defined roles. These conditions are consistent, even if the size varies. In any case, what harms the organisation is the increasing burnout of the employees. They feel overworked and are not able to create the value expected out of them.

“Basically, organisations nowadays are under competitive pressure to make their employee benefits look richer. It is often because of the kind of workforce that they have and the nature of the talent pool. It’s a practice largely driven by the Silicon Valley.”

Sudheesh Venkatesh, chief people officer, Azim Premji Foundation

Solution

The solution to this is a more disciplined, regularised, well-implemented system of leaves. Compulsory leaves or forced leaves are better than unlimited leaves. To ensure that every employee is availing their quota of leaves and getting back to work with a better state of mind, the organisations need to force them to leave for fun and playful vacations!

Sudheesh Venkatesh, chief people officer, Azim Premji Foundation, is all for availing leaves — even if they are carried over due to lack of use — and also granting of additional leaves for extraordinary circumstances. The organisation has to stress on the value of a leave, as a powerful form of entitlement. Policies such as ‘unlimited leaves’ often do not give enough significance to the time taken off.

The unlimited leaves policy can often convey the wrong message of ‘ask your manager’. When questions are raised over the issue of credibility of leave requests, the agenda of ensuring higher workplace flexibility falls through. Therefore, it is better if the organisation establishes a set of restrictions, because then, the need to “ask” one’s manager will not recur.

“The better or more practical way of doing it is, to define a set of principles, such as conveying that a set of leaves, if not availed, will lapse beyond a point. One can accumulate it for a benefit later, after which it will lapse. In an exception basis, the organisation can approve additional leaves if the situation so demands, and if the request is genuine. Discretion can be used at that moment to allow and grant that leave,” suggests Venkatesh.

I don’t think unlimited policy is a workable policy anywhere in the world, irrespective of the organisation’s design and framework. A holiday will not be a benefit, if it is free for all and can be availed by anyone at any time. 

Ravi Mishra, senior VP – HR, Aditya Birla Chemicals

Advantages of forced leave policy

Facilitates planning and communication: Forced leave policy will compel the employees to engage with their managers to consult their planned days off. It will facilitate communication. If the communication channels are open, when to take leaves and when not to, can also be informed beforehand. Organisations can enforce temporary periods of shutdowns during the crunch, similar to how the days from Christmas to New Years’ eve are observed as shutdown periods by many global companies.

Grants more autonomy: Some organisations, such as Buffer, have come up with minimum leaves policy. They however, have a maximum limit too, so that the employees are actively vigilant about their boundaries. This grants them higher levels of autonomy, as no manager can interfere in the restricted area of minimum leaves that the leaders may motivate them to avail.

Encourages complete ‘switching off’: Forced leaves would also mean an absolute absence from workplace. They inspire employees to switch off entirely and truly enjoy the vacation. The message becomes clearer if the managers themselves set a good example by taking leaves when required.

Avoids time mismanagement: ‘Balance’ is the key word, when we talk about healthy work-life balance. Pre-planning leaves, not just helps the organisation manage its workflow, transfer tasks effectively, and map the progress, but also helps the employees plan how exactly they want to plan their time-off. A pre-planned way of functioning avoids mismanagement of time.

Mishra shows conviction for the ‘Theory of Constraints’ that he follows in his daily life, when he says,” Individuals are biased towards their personal and professional lives, selectively.” He rightly points out that, with planning, people become aware of their limitations. “I personally function according to the theory of constraints. Any extreme can disrupt the balance and lead to misuse and mismanagement,” he adds. Misuse is a wrong notion, whereas mismanagement indicates the individual’s fault or ignorance as the cause. “When we know the limit of something, we can find better ways of managing it. I cannot plan for something at any given time, just because I have unlimited leaves. That way, my personal plans will get all muddled,” he explains.

Policies, such as unlimited leaves have become a mere marketing gimmick to attract the best from the talent pool. To get Gen-Z employees on board with enticements, such as flexibility and better employee benefits, organisations serve them illusions on a plate. Resonating this thought, Venkatesh says, “Basically, organisations nowadays are under competitive pressure to make their employee benefits look richer. It is often because of the kind of workforce that they have and the nature of the talent pool. It’s a practice largely driven by the Silicon Valley.”

“Things that look nice may not always be useful. For instance, the shelves of cassettes that now lie untouched in libraries, may definitely have vintage appeal, and be exorbitantly priced too, but are not really useful. Similarly, when it comes to the unlimited leaves policy, the HR often plays with the jargon. A more campaign-led image is being created. How HR is working on the real issues that actually matter, is what is important,” enunciates Mishra.

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