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Fill Skills Gaps Using Learning Sabbaticals

A woman wearing headphones is using a computer.

Wouldn't it be great to take paid time off from work for a month or longer to develop a new skill or hone an existing one?

One way to do this is through a learning sabbatical. 

Sabbaticals typically are found in academia, where faculty members get time off to pursue research and scholarly writing in their field.

And some employers in the corporate world offer vacation-type sabbaticals to encourage employees to unplug from work, using them as a recruitment, retention and engagement tool. At Morris Financial Services in Mount Pleasant, S.C., its 10 full-time staff members are eligible for a month-long paid sabbatical after every five years of employment, in addition to the vacation they accrue. The goal is to encourage employees to refresh themselves by doing something that brings them joy, said president and owner Kyra Morris.

For these employers, "A sabbatical is a planned, strategic job pause during which an employee takes time to do research, volunteer and learn new skills," said Halelly Azulay, president and founder of TalentGrow LLC, a management consulting firm in Los Angeles.

But the explicit purpose of a learning sabbatical is education, explained Azulay, a leadership development strategist and author of Employee Development on a Shoestring (Association for Talent Development, 2012). It gives employees the opportunity to fully immerse themselves to develop new knowledge, skills and aptitudes.

"A learning sabbatical is not the perfect fit for everyone, but for some learning goals it is a better employee development approach than some of the other commonly used development methods such as training, self-directed learning or stretch assignment when total immersion in the learning process can yield [more] significant compound benefits than dabbling or learning incrementally."

The learning sabbatical can last anywhere from a few days to a couple months or a full year. Azulay thinks releasing someone from work duties for an extended period works best for employees who have been at the company for a while and are further along on their career path. These more-established employees likely have developed trust within the organization, so there is less concern they will leave the company when the sabbatical ends. Plus, "someone who is more tenured is more likely to be ready for this kind of more intense development."  

Learning Sabbaticals to Retain Talent 

A learning sabbatical helped a San Francisco-based oranization with 70 employees retain a valued worker after one of its teams was downsized in 2016.

Two members of the three-person customer research team at Buffer, a social media management platform, were moved to other areas of the company, each splitting their full-time work between the advocacy and marketing teams.

But where should the company move Tom Dunn, the third member of that group who had been with the company for three years?

"Tom is a great fit with our values at Buffer, and we were very keen to keep him on board," said Hailley Griffis, public relations manager at Buffer who wrote a post on Buffer's blog about the company's learning sabbatical.

Dunn was interested in product design but lacked those skills—skills the company needed. Company co-founder Joel Gascoigne created a 12-week in-house learning sabbatical for Dunn so he could acquire that knowledge and so Buffer would retain him in the process.

"Twelve weeks worked well because there were numerous check-ins for Tom. He felt he had enough time to learn and grow," using videos and online tutorials, "but also get the necessary feedback from his future boss to adjust and refine his skills," Griffis said.

Buffer initiated the learning sabbaticals as a mechanism to retain employees when jobs were changed or became obsolete, according to Courtney Seiter, director of people.

"We wanted to have, internally, a 'no layoffs' policy … [and] learning sabbaticals became our main tool to make good on the promise of that" as long as the employee is in good standing. "We wanted to support [employees'] growth in that direction …. [recognizing] that they might need to come back to Buffer in a new capacity." 

Buffer has had two employees take learning sabbaticals; the second person opted not to return before his sabbatical ended. That taught Buffer the importance of setting explicit expectations and creating milestones and check-in periods with the employee. Seiter said the employee should be told, for example, "If you want to become a designer you need to know X, Y and Z and compete two project by the end of [the sabbatical]." 

"If you can be extremely explicit around what the sabbatical is for and what the sabbatical is not for, it's really in everyone's best interest."

And it's important, Seiter added, to keep the employee on sabbatical feeling a part of the team by including the person in the organization's activities and communication.

"It didn't feel like [Tom] was gone" during the three months he was on sabbatical, she said. 

He was paid 50 percent of his salary during his sabbatical, continued to receive benefits, was included in company communications and attended a team retreat in Madrid. When his sabbatical ended, Dunn became a junior product designer, working full time. His successful experience prompted Buffer to continue the initiative as an option for employees in good standing when there is no longer a need for their current role, Griffis said.

But taking time off at half-pay is "definitely not an easy transition," she acknowledged.

"We think of it as paying employees to learn new skills and stay at the company. Usually you might not get paid to do that, and we recognize that this might not be a good fit for everyone," she said. A shorter time frame could work for a learning sabbatical, depending on the employee's skill level and adjusting pay accordingly. She said Buffer supports a sabbatical when there is a role change and uses the following compensation guideline: 

  • 100 percent of existing salary (the salary of the last role the employee held) for a one-month leave.
  • 75 percent of existing salary for a two-month leave.
  • 50 percent of existing salary for a three-month leave. 
Learning sabbaticals in other companies can be paid or unpaid. Mercer's 2016-2017 U.S. Compensation Policies & Practices report found that among 420 HR professionals it surveyed, nearly half (47 percent) said their organization offered unpaid sabbaticals, 34 percent offered fully paid sabbaticals, 17 percent offered a partial salary and 2 percent offered a banked salary.

Benefits to the Employer  

In addition to having an employee acquire new skills, there are many ways organizations can benefit from learning sabbaticals, according to Azulay:

  • Accelerate skill development for key employees. 
  • Cross-training for other employees.
  • Jump-start for succession planning.
  • Retain employees who might otherwise leave for lack of challenging or suitable development opportunities.
  • Improve delegation capabilities for leaders. 
"Leaders who take a learning sabbatical often gain greater strategic focus" because they delegate tasks they can't perform while out of the office to their team members, Azulay said. Staff members not on sabbatical get stretch assignments and build leadership capabilities.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Employees]

How to Launch a Learning Sabbatical  

The employee and team leader should talk about the skills the employee is expected to gain or goals to achieve as well as a practical timeline for achieving those goals. The employee will devise his or her own learning plan for reaching those goals to share with the team lead for approval.

Azulay offered the following recommendations for creating a learning sabbatical:

Start planning early. Ask the employee to create a business case that specifically outlines how the employee and the organization will benefit from the sabbatical. Work with the employee to define the sabbatical goals and how the employee plans to achieve those goals. It took six months for Buffer to craft the sabbatical "to make sure [it] felt good to Tom and our product design team," Griffis said.

Implement a strong delegation strategy. Invite the employee to review all of his or her current tasks and projects and create a work coverage plan to decide how and to whom to delegate the employee's work while on sabbatical. If the employee supervises others, she must delegate some of that work permanently so she can think strategically and spend more time on strategy and less time on tactical work.

Communicate the plan, goals and benefits to others in the organization. Prepare others for the sabbatical, build support and encourage others to champion the initiative to ensure its success. Tell staff, management, clients and vendors how they and the organization will benefit. Communicate the organization's support of this plan to boost acceptance and support.

Azulay advised using the word "experiment" when introducing the concept of a learning sabbatical.

"Sometimes it feels scary to do something that has not been proven before. Tagging it as a tentative event that will only be repeated if successful can help relieve some of the pressure to be 'perfect,' " she said, "and also can create a way out if it proves to be less successful than you hoped."  

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