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How to offer sabbaticals

A growing number of startups are offering sabbaticals to draw in talent. But how do you set up a sabbatical programme? And should you?

By Miriam Partington in Berlin

Offering sabbaticals can improve the performance and happiness of employees and help companies hang onto their talent longer. But they shouldn’t be offered without carefully considering the consequences on the business. We chatted to Linnea Bywall, head of people at Alva Labs, a Stockholm-based digital hiring platform, about how startups can implement sabbaticals — with less collateral damage.

Set a clear purpose.

Before deciding to set up a sabbatical programme, think about what you want to get out of it. If you want to increase employee performance, then offer a short, one-month sabbatical where you can allow people to go off and learn or see something new, so that they come back to work with more energy and motivation. If you want your company to stand out from the crowd, you could offer a longer sabbatical (three months plus) which is more flexible on the return date. Ultimately, it’s important to think through whether you actually need to offer sabbaticals in the first place — especially if you’re a startup with limited team members who may not be able to handle a person’s absence. For example, before Alva offered sabbatical leave, it first increased its vacation days to 35 days per year in order to give its employees more work-life balance. Then, when employees started requesting sabbaticals, it made a more official policy. 

Think about how it will affect the business.

Offering sabbaticals is all well and good, but leaders need to consider how it’s going to be for the employees left behind. For example, if you’re a small team of five and one person is out for months, that could have a serious knock-on effect on whether targets are hit, or indeed, whether the employees can handle the additional workload. Questions for leaders to consider when offering individuals sabbaticals are: “How are we going to recalculate the targets and expectations for this team?” “Are we going to hire someone new during this period, take on a consultant — or will someone else from the team move into their role?” Thinking about how to plug the gaps in someone’s absence is key. 

Write down expectations.

Document what the sabbatical arrangement is going to be between you and your employee. For example, decide on how long the sabbatical will be, whether or not it will be paid and if so, then how much. It’s also important to figure out the conditions of the arrangement. Can the employee do whatever they want with their time off, or are they obliged to spend some time learning a new skill? There are companies out there, for instance, that offer four-week sabbaticals to employees if they spend time working for a charity or NGO. 

Plan ahead.

If you know that an employee is going to be off for an extended period of time, you need to have an action plan in place to help teams adjust to this person’s absence. This will largely depend on the role. For example, if the person is a team lead, there needs to be a very clear handover of responsibility. When Alva’s CEO went on parental leave for three months he put a huge document together about who was responsible for what task or project, who makes decisions, who to go to for troubleshooting etc. Spelling out what employees or teams are expected to do is essential to set that team up for success. 

Follow-up on results.

Sabbaticals are as much a function of giving someone much-needed time off, as they are for companies maintaining a happy working team. But how can you tell whether sabbaticals are actually helping employees and companies reach their goals? Measure the results: if the purpose behind offering sabbaticals was to attract new talent, you can see whether you have an increase in the average amount of applications you get per open position. Or, if it’s supposed to increase performance, then see whether employees are improving in their monthly performance reviews. 

Miriam Partington is Sifted’s Germany correspondent. She also covers future of work, coauthors Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter and tweets from @mparts_

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