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Employee Wellbeing

Richard Branson: ‘Reap the Rewards of Workplace Flexibility’

Photo: Courtesy of Richard Branson

The workplace is no longer 9-5. The eccentric business guru explains why a culture of health and wellness is good for business.

You are consistently posting pictures of your adventures all over the world. With a massive, multifaceted company under your belt, how do you manage to maintain a sense of balance between your work and your personal life?

It‘s easy to neglect your health and family as you spend time dealing with issues at work. Finding time for yourself may seem just about impossible, but you won’t be able to keep going at 100 miles per hour if you’re running on empty.

I find that technology is a great help—I use phone calendars, email reminders and mobile reminders to maneuver my way to each meeting, event and party. You can also use these things to make sure you have time to eat regularly and that you can get a good sleep.

My family is the center of my life, so wherever I am in the world, when I have a few minutes, I talk to my wife and kids. I used to work from home in order to be with the kids as they grew up. It is possible to spend quality time with the family, while still working hard from outside of the office.

Finding time for aspirational thought is vital. When I am at home on Necker Island, I spend time every day in a hammock with my notebooks and iPad, thinking over new ideas and dreams.

Short breaks can also make a big difference. When things are hectic, I find a good English breakfast cup of tea rejuvenating, and after a long day of business travel and meetings, a hot, relaxing bath can make a big difference.

Exercise is vital, to keep the body as active as the mind (I try to start my days on Necker with a swim around the island or a game of tennis if I can).

Have you always placed a heightened importance on play just as hard as you work, if not harder?

In order to be refreshed and ready for anything, you need to find time for play. You are far more likely to succeed if you are having fun, meeting new people or sharing a joke on Twitter. At Virgin we have always prided ourselves on throwing spectacular parties—it’s great when companies look after their people and celebrate their successes.

As an employer, why do you stress work-life balance for your employees?

Too many companies are too keen to put multitudes of rules and regulations on their staff. Not only does this stifle flexibility, it suggests a lack of confidence in your team to do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Give your people freedom to be independent, and your business will reap the rewards.

I truly believe that if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business.

We run a range of schemes to help staff keep healthy – fresh fruit is available on a daily basis, we have a flexible working policy and staff can also take part in our Virgin Pulse program which monitors their exercise levels throughout the day.

And last year we introduced unlimited leave for all staff at our head offices Virgin Management and our foundation Virgin Unite. Flexible working has revolutionised how, where and when we all do our jobs. If working nine to five no longer applies, then neither should strict annual vacation policies.

Ultimately, it’s all down to our people and putting trust in them— they are the ones who make me want to come to work every day, and they are the ones who will continue to make Virgin a trusted and successful brand.

In what ways can other employers/organizations encourage a culture of health and wellness?

It’s a lot harder to try and convince people that they’re looking at a good brand, rather than simply being a great one. I suggest the following:

  1. Put people at the center of your business: Your employees are by far the best advocates for your business. Make sure they feel valued and cared for so that they love your business just as much as you do. Little things make all the difference such as celebrating success or remembering birthdays.
  2. Choose the right talent and keep them: People are what make the cogs turn in a business. A business simply can’t succeed without the success of its people, so not only should you pick the right people, but you should do everything in your power to help them grow and develop. Don’t second guess them, empower them.
  3. Listen to your staff: If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to listen to your staff. People can be your best asset, or your most fierce opposition, so making sure you know how they feel and getting them on board is important. Nobody likes a dictatorship.
  4. Be bold! Try new things: When it comes to testing out new ideas in the workplace it can feel like a bit of a gamble. For example, late last year Virgin Management introduced unlimited vacation. Nobody can predict whether or not it will work in the long term… but then again, how do you know until you try? It’s certainly no fun standing still! You also need to get senior people to practice, push and encourage any health and wellness policies a company has come up with to make sure everyone is making the most of them.
  5. Create a workplace that generates its own legacy: If a business is good, does good, and makes others feel good, then it creates its own legacy.

Are there any initiatives or upcoming trends in employee health and wellness that you personally support?

First and foremost, I believe in flexible working. It is important that employers appreciate their employees’ work-life balance and give them the flexibility to work around their personal lives. We have embraced flexible working since 2013 and allowed our people to work from home or remotely and stagger their working hours if they wish to. We trust our employees to work from wherever and whenever they like as long as they get their work done on time and to a high level, and other Virgin companies may decide to follow in the future.

I also support unlimited leave:  In my book, I talked about how we were introducing an unlimited vacation policy, which is currently applicable to the 170 people at Virgin’s headquarters, Virgin Management and our not-for-profit foundation Virgin Unite. This allows our people to take as much vacation as they feel they need each year, as long as they take a minimum amount of vacation to ensure they are getting time to rest and recharge. This gives our staff the flexibility to take more vacation time than previously possible, for example during a special year when somebody gets married.

Employee well-being is key. At Virgin we believe that if you look after your staff first the rest will follow, a happy workforce is a healthier workforce. At Virgin we have a health and well-being program called Virgin Pulse, it’s just one way we are trying to help our workforce lead a healthy lifestyle. Virgin Pulse is a fun way to monitor levels of exercise throughout the day, not only does this help companies support the health and wellness of their employees but it also creates a create culture at work where employees are engaged and performing at their peak.

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