Sabbaticals Are Nice For Employees, Sure—But They're Also Great For Your Business

Sabbaticals are a rare perk in corporate America, but they shouldn't be. Here's how to build a program that will benefit both your employees and your company.

When we began our careers, we wanted to change the world.

Some of us, like my colleague Ryan Martens, had lofty aspirations of starting a company that harnessed a new way of thinking to solve the world’s deepest environmental and social problems. The vision of the company, which would become Rally Software, sat at the intersection of business and environmental issues—aiming to satisfy customers’ needs, generate profits, and help solve environmental problems all at the same time.

We’ve dedicated the last 10 years to radically changing the way businesses build software and products, with some of our customers realizing fourfold increases in efficiency and productivity. As you can imagine, that has required some innovative thinking and decision-making on the part of the very smart people who are the heart and soul of Rally.

I’m really passionate about maintaining a culture that encourages all those smart people to pursue their dreams and ambitions. Not only can employees at Rally explore their passions by changing roles, titles, and even departments (as long as it aligns with the company’s goals), but they are encouraged to explore their passions outside of work as well. Employees can spend 1% of their paid time volunteering, which has resulted in more than 6,000 donated volunteer hours at over 175 organizations in the last three years. 

We also started a sabbatical program in 2010. To date, we’ve granted seven sabbaticals, with three more in the planning stage. About 80% of those eligible have taken or planned their sabbaticals. Our criteria for a sabbatical is simple: After completing seven years of full-time service, every employee is eligible for six weeks of fully paid leave. The adventure does not have to be work-related, and we encourage our employees to do something grand—to pursue a passion, to think big, to go deep.

Sabbaticals are a rare perk in corporate America. Only 23% of all U.S. companies and 17% of small-to-midsized businesses offer sabbaticals. Even among the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, fewer than 25% offer a fully paid sabbatical program. We think more companies should consider offering sabbaticals. Most companies that do offer sabbaticals aim to reward the dedication and contribution of long-time employees with a break that allows them to return recharged, refreshed, and relaxed. 

While those are certainly good reasons to grant sabbaticals, there is an even better reason: to watch how the team left behind steps up to take on new responsibilities. Sabbaticals are not just good for those who take them; they are good for the business because of what happens in their wake. Shaking things up encourages new ways of working and new ways of solving old problems to flourish and grow. Sabbaticals also represent an opportunity for both the company and its employees to explore new realities. Non-sabbatical employees have an opportunity to explore a new position in a low-risk way, while the company gains insight into the potential capabilities of employees in new roles.

At the forefront of the sabbatical is the individual—we want employees to do what is most important to them. We employ a collaborative model where the employee pitches an idea to his or her manager and the manager works with them to take the idea to the next level—to make the sabbatical something bigger, a game changer. While it is not a requirement, we do see a trend where employees use their sabbatical to volunteer, to support their communities, and to give back.

When it was time for my sabbatical, I hopped on a boat with my wife and our 60-pound Weimaraner Blu, and we sailed through the Gulf of California. We visited cities throughout the Baja Peninsula, spent some quiet time on the water, and came back with a few great stories about Blu falling overboard multiple times, followed by his loyal first mate (me). It was good practice for our eventual goal of sailing around the world. I was away for six weeks, and life at Rally went on just fine without me. I trusted the leadership team to make the right decisions, and they did. They also did so without our Founder and CTO Ryan Martens, who took his sabbatical at the same time I did.

Reflecting the contrast of our cultural centers, Ryan took a different approach to his sabbatical and spent his time as the Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) at The Unreasonable Institute, an incubator for social ventures. Ryan thrives on the energy of new ideas and problem solving and wanted to give back to the entrepreneur community by helping others create their businesses. He came back with a pile of good ideas to further Rally’s goals around corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Ryan believes in our sabbatical program because of what it does for one’s mental slack time. As he put it, "We all need this time to sharpen our personal vision, work outside the business, and scale ourselves. By doing this, we can bring tremendous value to the business and to our communities."

Several other employees have taken meaningful sabbaticals since we introduced the program. It’s been one of the best things we’ve done for employee retention and overall happiness. Introducing sabbaticals can be a big change for many companies, but here’s some closing advice derived from our own experiences:

●    Do not listen to the naysayers. Do not worry about your Board of Directors telling you this is a bad idea. Challenge them to understand that this goes beyond rewarding dedication—this is good for the company because of what happens with those left behind. It is a way to test out the leaders of tomorrow, to solve old problems with new ideas.
●    Do not worry about creating a vacuum. If you cannot recover from one person being gone for six weeks, then you do not have an organization; you have a hero culture. No one is indispensable, including the CEO. Instead, look at this time as an opportunity for others to step up and try new roles.
●    Build trust, not loyalty. Loyalty is an outdated management concept. At Rally, we believe in building trust. A highly collaborative culture fundamentally depends on trust. When you keep trust at a high bar, and you have confidence that the company will treat you well and you will treat the company well, then good things happen. Trust is the key ingredient in a successful sabbatical program.

[Image: Flickr user Kevin Dooley]

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