Branson: The secret to success is a nice long vacation

Many employees are afraid to take time off, but from job-sharing to working from home, there are lots of good options.

(Photo: Philip and Karen Smith/Iconica)

Many people are now on holiday or planning their getaways—a time when entrepreneurs and executives may find it especially tough to shut off their BlackBerrys and otherwise maintain work-life balance. These days, business is global and fast-paced, and you may be contacted at any time by colleagues and clients. In this environment, decisions are often made too quickly, by people who are too tired to make the best choices—a situation that over time, will stunt a business’s growth and its chances of success.

When I meet with groups of colleagues or business people, I sometimes ask how they would arrange their work hours differently if given the chance. Would they like to share a job, take more time off or work more flexibly?

Most people are reluctant to speak up because they worry that their bosses will think they are lazy or lack motivation. Though many people are eager to change their work schedule, only about one in five executives immediately volunteers that information. It is important to tackle this problem, whether you are launching a business or managing an established company, because keeping your staff motivated and happy is key to your company’s success. My experience and that of our group over the years has shown that making yourself take a break and ensuring that your employees or colleagues are able to do the same will help your most valuable team members be more creative and innovative. So ask your employees how best you can help them pursue their goals at work and at home.

Some employees may be candidates for job sharing, an alternative that will help you to retain skilled older workers and others who cannot work full time—new parents, for example, or those caring for ill or aged family members. This solution may create jobs since there are many people working full time who would voluntarily decrease their hours if given the chance, and many unemployed people who would take part-time jobs if they were available.

Senior managers in particular may have difficulty accepting their colleagues’ job-sharing arrangements for fear that those executives may lose touch with developments in their areas. But there are few jobs that cannot be shared between two or more people. In fact, these fears reflect the reality that many executives are overburdened; that companies often assign too much responsibility to a single position. By introducing job-sharing—and, frankly, better delegating the workload—companies can ensure that knowledge and experience are more widespread, and that decisions are made by those who are best positioned to do so.

It’s also important to take a good look at your company’s policies regarding holidays and paid vacation leave. Sadly, in some countries, particularly the United States, companies do not allow employees enough time to relax and recharge. The traditional two-week holiday is just not enough; this attitude of discouraging employees from taking vacations encourages absenteeism and unhappiness. In Europe, most businesses have a better sense of what is appropriate and what will work for both employee and employer.

Remember, your generosity will pay off! There is always room to accommodate your employees’ needs. If money is tight because you’re running a startup or your business is in the early stages, you can offer longer holidays in return for lower wages. In bigger, more established companies, long-serving employees should be offered the option of taking a sabbatical or unpaid leave—whatever is needed to recharge their batteries.

Finally, once you have established a trusted team, do not be afraid to let people work from home now and then. Many find they are more productive as they no longer have to commute and can use the quiet of their home office to focus on a project.

Asking your staff and yourself to take vacations and make time for family and other interests may seem counterintuitive in this fast-moving world. Think of it as looking after your company’s greatest asset: your employees. If you map out their needs and find solutions, you’ll see a huge payoff in terms of their creativity, enthusiasm and teamwork—and, ultimately, in the success of your business.