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The Netherlands is an international pioneer in customised working conditions and in the summer of 2015 it set a new trend when software firm Decos became one of the first Dutch IT companies to allow staff to take as much holiday as they want.
Decos, which develops software for smart cities, smart mobility and smart work, decided to introduce unrestricted staff holidays as part of a wider strategy to reduce the time spent on management. The company has 200 employees in offices in India and the Netherlands.
“We have a corporate culture in which we do not ask for permission, but for forgiveness,” said Bert Hendriks, chief commercial officer at Decos. “We noticed that people still found it difficult to claim that freedom, so we rigorously addressed the issue and established a structure of autonomous teams, which means all management layers have been removed. We do believe in leadership, but not so much in management.”
Unlimited holidays fitted perfectly into this transformation, said Hendriks. “Holiday requests, approvals and registration took up a lot of time, so we decided to give our employees complete freedom. The only condition is that they have to consult within their team before they actually take time off.”
Charissa Freese, professor of labour relations of the University of Tilburg, said more and more organisations in the Netherlands were experimenting with customised workforce management. “That includes initiatives such as unlimited holidays,” she said.
But Freese recommended a balanced approach. “These initiatives may induce a better work/life balance,” she said. “On the one hand, this is good because you see people burn out less quickly, but on the other hand, it also means that people will work harder. Sometimes you have to protect people from themselves.”
And that is what Thijs Geerdink, owner of IT company Nerds&Company, realised he needed to keep an eye on. Earlier this year, the firm gave its employees the freedom to decide how much holiday to take. “We wanted to know what would work and what would not,” he said. “We saw that people often took too little time off, so that was something we wanted to take into account beforehand.”
Unlike Decos, which does not register holidays, Nerds&Company is still recording how much time staff take off. “We do this just to build in a controlling mechanism to detect whether people take enough vacation,” said Geerdink. “We want to encourage people to actually take time for themselves.”
Kristel Moedt, people and talent director at marketing software supplier Bynder, has not found any employees abusing the system since holidays became unlimited early last year. Bynder records the time taken off by staff – but for a practical reason, said Moedt.
“In the Netherlands, workers must by law have at least 20 days’ holiday,” she said. “About once every quarter, we take a look at the situation and if we see that someone has been taking too little time off, we have a chat with them. This is more a precaution to encourage them to take enough time for themselves.”
Tilburg University’s Freese said having no fixed amount of leave may also be good branding for an employer. “With rules like this, you can present yourself as an employer with modern working conditions,” she said.
That is exactly what Nerds&Company was aiming to do. It hoped that its holiday strategy would attract the best programmers and designers. “We want to provide the best possible working environment,” said Geerdink. “Anyone can organise their own time, not only in terms of working hours, but also in terms of holidays.”
The same culture exists at Decos. “With us, everyone determines their own working hours and the location where they want to work,” said Hendriks. “Our office has become more of a meeting place.”
Bynder has also abandoned strict working hours. “We find that people cope well when we show confidence in them,” said Moedt.
Freedom and responsibility
Nerds&Company’s Geerdink has yet to discover what abolishing restrictions on holidays will cost or yield the company. “What I do see is that we are creating a sense of ownership,” he said. “People will look proactively at workplace planning issues. They feel far more responsible towards their colleagues.”
Decos’ Hendriks only sees advantages in the strategy. “OK, it was a bit difficult to implement,” he said jokingly, “because the auditors’ difficulty was that it was not clear in advance how many holidays would be taken. But I now see that our employees feel empowered that they can organise their own time. They feel energy and inspiration. Everything succeeds or fails according to the trust you place in your people.”
Last year, Bynder’s employees took about 11% more holidays than they did before the scheme was introduced. “The average number of vacation days taken by our employees is 24, which is not much different from companies where the maximum number is fixed,” said Moedt.
For the marketing software specialist, the system also works well for recruitment, she added. “It shows how we as a company interact with our employees. Many companies say they give their people a lot of freedom and responsibility, but have a staff handbook of 100 pages with all kinds of rules.”
IT is results-driven
The reason why unlimited holidays works in the IT sector is because “the output in our industry is not driven by time”, said Geerdink. “We are much more results-driven. We have a challenge that needs to be solved. Also, you work at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. You have to be creative and this cannot be forced.”
Bynder works with many international clients across the world. “Our colleagues have meetings at the oddest times of the day,” said Moedt. “We expect a lot of flexibility from them and can give something back with this measure. I think many IT companies are naturally innovative, but I am convinced that abolishing holiday limits can also work in other sectors, especially in organisations with positively motivated people who can handle responsibility, and where the company’s philosophy is to give people freedom and responsibility.”
Decos’ Hendriks added: “I think a system such as this is particularly suitable for organisations that work in an agile way, in short cycles and in a team.”