Vacances à volonté

January 22, 2013

vacation“Impossible, that would never work in France; don’t be so idealistic,” chided my friend with a dismissive wave of the hand. With a storied career rising through the ranks of a CAC40 firm and more recently a business owner, my friend knew a lot about managing people in a French workplace.

We were discussing a nascent but growing trend in the US and UK of companies offering a policy of unlimited holidays to their full-time staff. Yes, you read that right: unlimited vacation days. Take as much time off as you like, companies tell their employees. As long as you meet your annual objectives, we’re happy.

Too good to be true?

One could be forgiven for having such a first reaction. But this is exactly what companies like Netflix and frequent LeWeb participant Evernote, offer. The perk is genuine too, as the firms refuse to track holiday allowance. And according to them, the policy is not abused; it really works. As Evernote CEO Phil Libin told the Financial Times in an interview on the subject:

“Getting a job at Evernote is tough and people want to be there. If you take the attitude that being in the office isn’t a punishment, then spending days outside the office isn’t a reward.”

Could this ever work in France?

Maybe I am being too idealistic, but I’d like to believe that this concept could work in France too (I’m unaware of any serious implementation of this in France to date but would be delighted to hear if you know otherwise).

Granted, a number of systemic hurdles would need to be overcome. The largest may well be those of business culture. The relationship between management and employees in most French companies tends more toward adversial than collegial, or at least there’s a clear line of demarcation between management and staff. This institutionalized corporate hierarchy creates a practically uncrossable chasm for most employees. Why should an employee expend extraordinary effort if they don’t feel part of something bigger ? Worse yet, many companies exacerbate this two-speed system by depriving the proletariat of the very privileges that management might enjoy, be it stock options, flexible working hours, or heavens, even unaccounted holiday periods.

Stringent labor regulations will undoubtedly be cited in rebuttal. And although the recent labor reform accord between government and unions takes a step in the right direction, companies still face challenges and uncertainty in reducing headcount. What if, employers might ask, the employee turns out to be a bad apple and abuses our vacation policy?

I suppose the risk of abuse is slightly higher in a culture where people do not necessarily define themselves by their vocation. But I’d also like to believe that if a company embraces trust and empowerment of its employees, the vast majority of them will raise their game for the company. We just need a few early adopters to break the ice. The tech startup community strikes me as particularly well-suited to innovate here. Any takers?

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posted in technology, venture capital by mark bivens

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  • Thanks Frédéric, good point ! i.e. the legal workaround would be to require a minimum vacation period, but not a maximum.

    I submit that the *objective* should be to attract talented, self-motivated employees that are laser-focused on helping their company achieve its vision. Empower them and treat them like mature adults (heck, which could even mean granting unlimited vacation), and amazing things can happen. Of the two examples I cited with unlimited vacation policies — Netflix and Evernote — one is the current darling of the public markets, the other a similarly excelling private company. Full causal relationship? Of course not. But there’s probably a correlation.

  • Frederic HALLEY

    Mark, the concept would indeed be very difficult to translate into a French company. One of the major reason is that the company is liable is the employees don’t take all their vacations (the 5 weeks and so). I know companies that have been fined because employees were rolling our their vacation from one year to the other. On the other hand, it is legally OK for the employees to take more vacations than what they legally, but is that really the objective?

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