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Why taking sabbaticals are more productive than unlimited vacation

The challenge with unlimited paid time off is that, more often than not, you really can’t take a vacation any time you want.

Why taking sabbaticals are more productive than unlimited vacation
[Photo: Alexandra Mirgheș/Unsplash]

For many full-time employees, the idea of scheduling a sabbatical–which nearly a quarter of employers in the U.S. offer now–in addition to the standard two-to-three weeks of vacation time that your company allows would be downright dreamy. On the other hand, the promise of being in charge of your own time off with an unlimited vacation policy that companies like Netflix and LinkedIn offer may be a reason to consider checking out their careers page.

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But which policy works best for you and for the company?

Any time off requires a lot of strategic planning and excellent use of organizational skills not only from you but your colleagues who are picking up extra work for that period of time.

The challenge with unlimited paid time off is that, more often than not, you really can’t take a vacation any time you want. If that were the case, you would book trips every month. Employees need to think ahead about the workload they would potentially pass to their colleagues before scheduling their time off. This line of thought is what most of us currently deal with on a standard time-off policy.

If you work at a relatively fast-paced company, you and your supervisor may find it difficult to decide the best time frames to take those unlimited days off. This uncertainty, combined with feeling guilty about taking time off during a heavy workload for the team, may cause you to actually take less time off because it’s on your shoulders to make the right decisions for you and your colleagues who are picking up your slack.

At N6A, our employees are rewarded with month-long sabbaticals each year if they hit their performance goals. The package entitles the employee one month of paid sabbatical, taken as a full calendar month rather than staggered throughout the year. The choice of the month is subject to the approval of each employee’s supervisor, agency-wide volume, and companywide sabbatical distribution.

Our work environment is extremely collaborative, and sabbaticals require the full team to chip in while the person is away during their month. In a way, our sabbatical program does wonders for the team’s work productivity. We’re successful with this structure because our teams created extensive workflow systems to track and delegate items when someone is away on their sabbatical. It’s then up to the individual to provide their process and detailed instructions for their responsibilities so teammates can easily pick up items that were delegated to them.

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The sabbatical program has been a huge test of organization skills for everyone involved, including our agency’s operations manager, direct managers, support teams, and the individuals taking the time off. The program requires increased levels of trust, close collaboration, and commitment from teams in order to make it work. Yet many of our employees have noted that upon their return to the office, they also felt refreshed and ready to get back to the daily grind, which provides another boost to the team’s overall productivity. Recent research underscores these benefits.

One of my colleagues, a director who leads a team of eight, put it this way: “You know you have a great team when someone departs for sabbatical and everything remains seamless because they’ve planned ahead of time how to accomplish deliverables with one person out for the month.”

A sabbatical is a team effort. The team relies on you to be responsible for your work and to hand over your items in a way that doesn’t require a lot of extra time on their part to do your job. And when it’s someone else’s turn to take a month off, you would expect them to return the favor.

Nina Velasquez is N6A‘s executive vice president of Talent Development.

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