This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.
At a time when people are looking for more flexibility in their working arrangements, the idea that eight days of holiday each year are dictated by the calendar may seem outdated.
Rather than restrict people to the same eight holiday dates, Eve Sleep, which describes itself as a sleep wellness brand, has decided to give its staff the autonomy to choose when they’d like to take this time off. Its “pick ‘n’ mix bank holiday policy”, introduced earlier this month, allows employees to take the holiday at a time that’s more meaningful to them, for example by swapping out the Easter bank holiday for a day off on Diwali.
The UK’s shared holiday dates have remained relatively fixed since the introduction of the Bank Holidays Act in 1871. Only New Year’s Day in 1974 and the first Monday of May in 1978 have been added since.
Spotify and the accounting firms Deloitte and Grant Thornton are among other businesses that offer flexible public holiday dates. Although widely offered by companies, particularly those in the knowledge economy, there is no automatic right to time off for bank holidays. All employees must be offered 5.6 weeks paid holiday a year, with many companies including bank holidays in this allowance.
Four out of the eight public holidays in England relate to dates in the Christian calendar, while Scotland and Ireland also have an additional day’s holiday to recognise their patron saints.
For Eve Sleep’s people director Faye McLean, this made the change a simple way to improve diversity and inclusion within the company. “Many of the bank holidays in the UK are Christian holidays, such as Easter and Christmas,” she says. “But if you celebrate another religious holiday, you might have to use your personal allowance for that. Why should that be the case?”
Even though the flexible approach to public holidays was first suggested as a potential way to improve inclusion, Eve Sleep’s culture champions – an internal group of staff focused on improving workplace practices – quickly realised the potential benefits it could have for all of its 60 staff. Even if staff celebrate Easter, they may prefer to work Good Friday in return for an extra holiday day to take in the summer. Or it might be that a bank holiday falls during a particularly busy period at work.
For McLean, giving people this choice was “a no brainer”. “It’s a low-cost perk that benefits everybody,” she adds.
Despite being low-cost, there were some challenges with implementation. “The policy went through a few iterations before launching, particularly in relation to the amount of notice people should give,” McLean explains.
Originally, it was thought people should notify HR a year before changing their chosen bank holiday dates but this was quickly cut down to three months. McLean admits this is likely to change again as staff provide feedback and the policy evolves.
Questions around whether people can save up all the bank holidays and take them at once also need to be worked through.
“There are quite a lot of logistics involved from an HR perspective, such as managing different team’s workloads or deciding how many people you can have off at once, that makes the policy more complicated than it may initially sound,” she says.
McLean believes, however, that this complexity should not deter other businesses from introducing their own flexible bank holiday policy or trying new HR schemes “My advice is don’t be scared to try something new or something that few others have done. You can even run it as a trial to provide an element of safety, if you’re concerned that it might fail.”
The policy is part of a wider development of the business’s inclusion programme. This has so far included holding a special breakfast to mark Eid and giving out ‘Hello Spring’ chocolate bars, in lieu of the usual Easter eggs. McLean explains that this decision was made as it still recognised Easter but “without necessarily making people feel excluded if they didn’t celebrate it”.
While this can be a difficult line to tread, McLean believes companies need to embrace the diversity of their staff. “We have people of all different religions working for us, so you can’t shut out these celebrations . You need to find the perfect balance, which is very hard.”
She adds: “Some people treat diversity and inclusion as a tick-box exercise but you really need to live and breathe it as an organisation – that goes from recruitment to reward, recognition and benefits.”