Do Sabbaticals Have a Role in Business?

Furloughs, Reflection & Learning

Sabbaticals have long been the domain of academia. But with company furloughs exposing lots of people to extended periods of downtime, it may be the opportune time for organizations to give the concept consideration, with a twist.

These days furloughed employees include millions of people caught in the cost-cutting fallout of a pandemic still in the works. Forward-thinking organizations are thinking of this as a period of leave where employees can engage in pursuits of purpose: a sabbatical in furloughed clothing.

The early history of sabbatical leave is rooted in the Hebrew word Shabbat – a day of ceasing from work – which descends from the biblical story of creation and the seventh day of rest. The New World Encyclopedia elaborates further describing a sabbatical as a hiatus from work, typically two months or more. “The concept relates to biblical commandments (Leviticus 25, for example) requiring that fields be allowed to lie fallow in the seventh year.”

Millennium later, the first defined academic sabbatical leave was established in 1880 for members of Harvard University faculty, followed by other universities shortly thereafter. A 1907 report from Columbia University stated how periodical leave was for the good of university education. “University teaching must be progressive…requires periodic refurbishing…contact with other institutions…with specialists…with methods of acquiring and imparting knowledge in vogue elsewhere.”  With a few word substitutions, can’t the same be said for the good of an organization?

Furloughs, Reflection, Learning - Learning

Studies show people at the helm of organizations benefit from three to four-month sabbaticals. It “arms them with greater confidence in their role upon return, allows them to think outside the box, generating new ideas for effecting change,” and makes them, as David Burkus writes for Forbes, “better able to crystallize the existing vision for the organization and to create a new, more powerful one.”  In these times of radical change, doesn’t a serious rethink make sense? And it turns out, as Burkus found in his research, sabbaticals are also good for the leadership development and succession of interim leaders who fill in during the leave.

Furloughs as pseudo-sabbaticals

If employees are able to make it through furloughs without having to find employment elsewhere, organizations can use this time productively to develop their skills, and will probably find the vast majority are open to the idea.

In India, for instance, statistics reveal LinkedIn members spent over 420,000 hours learning in July 2020 alone.  This high-demand online learning interest centred on both digital skills and adapting to remote working, with five out of the top ten courses focused on soft skills.

The economic impact of COVID has made reskilling an urgent priority for job seekers, employers and employees alike. The questions we need to be asking ourselves are:

  • What do our employees need or want to learn in order to feel more confident and better equipped in these times?
  • What skills and learning gaps does our organization need to address to stay the course?
Furloughs, Reflection, Learning - Reflection

Frequent pulse surveys surface issues and interests related to the here and now. And as we head into the North American flu season while seeing an uptick in COVID cases and hearing talk about possible restriction rollbacks, the regular pulsing of furloughed and active employees can help your organization identify where to channel efforts. This two-way exchange of insights and actions exemplifies a commitment to your people and helps to smooth out the employee experience, despite circumstances. The results from these surveys can also flag and trigger learning opportunities for managers and senior leaders.

Technology tools include options to share data in real-time with line managers and senior leaders, giving them faster and more frequent access to the sentiments of their teams along with recommended learning resources applicable to areas where they can upskill themselves to finesse their management styles.

Excellent additions to these AI tools, and your own training and development library are Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) which have been exploding in popularity. Class Central, an online resource that focuses on lists of free (or free to audit) university MOOCs, reports that the top 100 courses leading the way during the COVID pandemic, represent 11.7 million new enrolments. “Surprisingly, a substantial portion (nearly 20%) of those enrolments are for one course: Yale University’s The Science of Well-Being.”

So yes, sabbaticals do have a real and viable role to play in the business world, especially when we think of it them the context of COVID, furloughed employees, and a time for reflection, learning and development.

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