Picture this: you’re lying on a sandy beach, inhaling the fragrant scents of suntan lotion and salt drifting on the gentle breeze. With your eyes closed, you can feel the hot sun on your face and hear the crashing of the waves on the shore. You wiggle your toes in the warm sand and take a deep, contented breath…

…then your eyes snap open, and you find yourself staring at the beach photo on your desktop calendar as yet another email marked “urgent” flashes into your inbox. And you sigh, realizing that’s as close to a holiday as you’re likely to get.

In today’s pressure-cooker work environments, “I don’t have the time to take time off ” is a common refrain. Sometimes, the mere thought of all of the work you’ll need to slog through—both in advance and when you return—is enough to dissuade you from going away at all.

But some companies are trying to make it easier for employees to get a break. As you may have heard, Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Group, recently introduced an unlimited vacation policy at the company.
Employees can take as much vacation as they want, whenever they want, without seeking prior approval or tracking their time off.

Initially, the policy applies only to a small group of U.S. and U.K. employees, but if it’s successful, Branson plans to roll it out more broadly. He apparently heard about the strategy at Netflix and decided that it fit well with Virgin’s views on how mobile technology is changing the way people work.

Such a strategy flies in the face of traditional views on absence management. And whether you agree or disagree with the approach, it raises some interesting questions.

What are the implications for performance management? How will managers know if an employee is simply taking a lot of vacation or if there’s a more serious underlying concern, such as substance abuse or a mental health issue? Will people take advantage of the system? Or will it actually prevent employees from taking vacation, with the fear that the employer (or an individual manager) will react negatively?

It seems employers just don’t know how to deal with the work/life balance issue. Some companies, like Virgin, are increasing flexibility in the workplace. Others—like Yahoo, which recently and infamously slashed its telecommuting policy—are reining it in.

Does the workplace work better when the environment is more structured or when employees are given more freedom to make their own choices? I like Branson’s approach—but only time will tell what’s a marketing ploy and what’s a true benefits trend.

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