Meg Cundiff is hard at work in an open-air barn on a farm outside Kansas City. She's standing in front of a blazing forge, wearing heavy leather gloves, hammering at a red-hot steel rod. Pam Sherrod is hard at work too. She's finishing a birdhouse she's just built, clearing away wood shavings to fit it with a roof made from an old tire.
Cundiff and Sherrod aren't members of a back-to-nature commune or characters from a colonial-era crafts fair. They're accomplished professionals, with fast-paced jobs, on an afternoon "sabbatical" from Hallmark Cards.
Forget the old world of sabbaticals — glorified vacations for tenured academics and middle-aged software engineers. These days, they don't come every seven years and don't necessarily involve months away from the office. Sabbaticals are less disruptive and more demanding, less a reward for time served than an opportunity to create the future. They are, in short, serious business.
No company is more serious about sabbaticals than Hallmark. The $3.4 billion greeting card giant is a creativity factory. A staff of 700 writers, illustrators, and designers — one of the largest creative teams in the world, Hallmark claims — grinds out 21,000 designs a year. Hallmark's challenge is to keep its people focused and productive — as well as creative and fresh.
"We're in the business of creativity," says Marita Wesely-Clough, Hallmark's crative strategy director. "We need to give people the space to create."
That space is physical as well as psychological. Hallmark has a 180,000-square-foot innovation facility adjacent to its sprawling headquarters in downtown Kansas City. Its two floors are packed with studios that support a range of crafts: beadmaking, ceramics, engraving, Leather tooling. It has an art gallery, a product-testing lab, even a small-scale manufacturing facility. Kearney Farm — where Sherrod and Cundiff practice their unofficial trades — is a spacious Victorian farmhouse outfitted as an artists' studio, with a barn equipped for woodworking, blacksmithing, and other crafts.
"I've been out to the farm three or four times," Says aspiring blacksmith Cundiff, an artist with the company's irreverent Shoebox line. "I sit in front of a computer screen all day. This is playtime for the mind." Sherrod, a card artist, says she built a birdhouse "not because I need one, but because I like to come out here. This is creative renewal."
Indeed, "creative renewal' is the core objective behind Hallmark's approach to sabbaticals. The company offers what may be the most sophisticated array of creativity-enhancing programs ever assembled. Think of it as a form of artistic cross-training — a burst of change to help keep the creative juices flowing.
Hallmark's most elaborate renewal programs (the company calls them "rotations") do resemble traditional sabbaticals in their length and scope. The company has two distinct categories of rotations. One focuses on artistic development. Teams of roughly 10 people spend four months exploring a new skill: stitchery, engraving, papermaking, glassblowing, ceramics. They give up their day-to-day duties, leave their cubicles, and relocate full-time to the innovation center.
The second category of rotations involves smaller teams (three or four people) who devote six months to an intensive learning mission about a specific social trend. Hallmark has sponsored nine of these sabbaticals over the last five years, on issues from computer technology to angels, from masculinity to spirituality. They're intense — by design. They involve extensive travel, research, and hands-on observation. Teams are expected to share what they learn. They create videos of their experiences, make presentations to colleagues, and build prototypes of products inspired by their work.
"It's not 'relaxing' in the traditional sense of a sabbatical. But it is refreshing. You get a new wall to bang your head against."
"It's not 'relaxing' in the traditional sense of a sabbatical." says Ginnie Job, a creative writer. "But it is refreshing. It gives you a new perspective. You get a new all to bang your head against.
One of the earliest sabbaticals, launched in 1992, explored the growing role of ethnicity in society. Four people volunteered to travel for six months, interact with experts, and report back to their colleagues. How could four people tackle such a huge assignment?
"We got busy and played hard," says Job, who was a member for the ethnicity group. "We read. We went to folk festivals. We went to ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, New York, and Seattle. We went to playgrounds. We looked and listened." The group was most impressed with Seattle as a model of the future. "Seattle was a whole different experience than Chicago and New York," Job says. "It was a more functional blend of cultures. Less separate, more interaction.
The ethnicity sabbatical had a direct impact on Hallmark's business. it prompted a broader infusion of ethnic styles throughout the company's mainstream car lines. "we didn't think we needed a special line for Native Americans, and another for Laotians," Job says. "Putting a multicultural focus in existing lines-as long as we didn't water it down too much — would do what we wanted."
Rotations have had an even bigger impact on the participants. The topics cut so close to their real experience, and people work so closely together, that they emerge with a different sense of themselves and a new sense of mission.
Jan Bryan-Hunt found her artistic voice in the course of the ethnicity rotation. In fact, she develop a new jewelry line, Symbolic Notions, based on multicultural symbols discovered in the rotation. Hallmark is test-marketing the line in 40 stores this fall.
"Before this rotation, I was always in the passive mode," she says. "Now I'm more aggressive. It forced me out of my comfort zone. If we were just told to stay in our cubicles and create all the time, we'd dry up. It's been three years since my rotations and it still keeps me gong.'
Charles Fishman is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. His cover story, "We've Seen the Future of Work," appeared in the August:September 1996 issue of Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the October/November 96 issue of Fast Company magazine.