Taking the road less travelled

HRM investigates how some firms are seeing benefits reaped from facilitating secondments and sabbaticals for their staff.

Felicia Wong, Youth Movement manager for the Singapore People’s Association (PA), thoroughly enjoys working with her colleagues. But a few years ago, she needed a break “to recharge and find a new perspective in life”.

Hence, she decided to take a two-year unpaid sabbatical from the organisation.

“Another main reason for taking a sabbatical is that I always have had a strong desire to travel.

“I don’t want to be stuck in one place, living there for the rest of my life. There is so much of the world to be seen, and I don’t want to miss out,” she explains.

But how did her employer respond to her request for a sabbatical?

Wong, who has been working at PA for around five years, says they were positive and supportive of her request.

Thereafter, she applied for a work and travel holiday visa to New Zealand.

During her two-year sabbatical, Wong worked in a vineyard, a farm, a restaurant and also helped out at a youth hostel in exchange for accommodation.

Besides working, she also travelled extensively, backpacking across New Zealand’s North Island and South Island. During the time, Wong stayed with relatives and also travelled to Fiji.

While Wong says her sabbatical helped her to be more adventurous, disciplined and determined, she believes that there are concerns about how it will be taken professionally. “It might not look good on my résumé as most employers don’t look too kindly to gaps in employment,” she states.

“But I believe that some employers will see the benefits in this.”

“Having the opportunity to work and travel in New Zealand has helped me to understand the differences of cultures and it has made me become even more independent, to go outside of my comfort zone and to go out of my normal routine.”

Meanwhile, Alex Cheong, an Account Manager with Text100, was keen to experience and understand the different dynamics and challenges of working in a different environment.

Hence, he undertook a secondment, a temporary transfer to another department.

“Having been part of the Asia-Pacific hub team for several years, I was able to share insights into the strategic role a hub plays, the benefits it offers to clients, and important considerations when liaising with multiple markets across the region to ensure strong and timely communications,” says Cheong.

“In addition, the secondment involved participating in our Sydney office’s routine account activities, such as brainstorming for creative campaign ideas; discovering the unique types of work and services that were executed on behalf of our clients in Australia; and identifying ways to inject a fresh perspective into tackling communications challenges back in Singapore.”

Cheong reaffirmed his belief that his secondment has benefitted his career.

“There are similarities in Singapore and Australia’s media landscapes, and I picked up a number of useful tips just by observing the interactions among my colleagues, the media and clients,” he says.

“There have been a couple of occasions since I completed my secondment that I’ve had to make urgent requests to my Sydney-based colleagues for materials or queries by existing clients, and these friendships do help smooth things through.”

However, not every organisation views sabbaticals and secondments in such a positive light.

According to the 2014 National Study of Employers report, the least common types of workplace flexibility offered to at least some employees were: working part year (18%), receiving special consideration when returning after an extended career break (20%), taking sabbaticals (28%) and sharing jobs (29%).

In fact, the report cited that organisations have reduced their provision of flexible working choices for staff.

Moreover, the 2014 State of the Career: Navigating Ambiguity report found that 58% of employers polled provided secondments and temporary assignments in 2014, with only 35% finding them “useful”.

The Text100 way

However, Elizabeth MacPherson, Asia-Pacific HR Director, Text100, stresses that sabbaticals and secondments are vital aspects of the organisation’s HR blueprint.

“A sabbatical is an opportunity for staff to take a well-deserved break from work in order to refresh and recharge, and secondments are opportunities for our staff to learn new skills and gain a greater understanding of our international business,” she says.

“They vary in length from a week to several months and can be undertaken in any Text100 location globally,” she explains.

MacPherson says Text100 staff can apply for an eight- week sabbatical after six years of continuous service.

In fact, employees have the flexibility of taking the sabbatical in two periods of four weeks, or as an eight- week block and can also add up to four weeks of annual leave.

“Unlike some traditional sabbatical programmes, at Text100, how you spend your sabbatical is a matter of personal preference – for some, it’s the chance to enjoy the trip of a lifetime, for others, it’s an opportunity to disconnect from the ‘always on’ world of technology and truly take a break,” MacPherson elaborates.

“We want to retain and motivate our high performers and we see great results from this employee benefit.”

Meanwhile, MacPherson says secondments establish working relationships with colleagues and clients in other locations, and enable the employee to transfer knowledge to their colleagues on their return to their base location, all of which contribute to an employee’s professional development.

From an HR perspective, she firmly believes secondments help in talent management.

“Secondments are invaluable when we have a short term skill gap in one location and we can quickly redeploy an employee with the expertise to join the project team,” says MacPherson.

“Working internationally also enables our staff to expand their cultural awareness which is crucial in a global business environment.”

However, in the current labour and talent crunch, is Text100 missing out in terms of manpower by offering its employees such comprehensive time away from the office?

MacPherson stresses that Text100 has been offering sabbaticals for several years and hence, it has not been a direct response to current market conditions.

“We aim to provide an environment that attracts, rewards, and retains the best people in the communications industry and this is just one piece of our total rewards offering.  Having refreshed and re-energised colleagues is beneficial for the whole team,” she explains.

The allure of secondments

Like her counterpart Cheong, Preeti Gupta, Senior Consultant, Text100, also undertook a secondment with the organisation in 2006, when she was working out of the San Francisco office.

“I had an opportunity to work in Delhi with our sister agency at the time, VOX PR, for two weeks. One of the many reasons I joined Text100 was because of the opportunity to work in other markets. When I got the opportunity to go to India and get a taste of how business was conducted there, I jumped at the chance,” says Gupta.

She reveals the secondment benefitted her career more than she could have possibly imagined.

“About four months after returning to the US, I was informed there was a full-time position in India and it didn’t take me long to accept the offer to move there for two years. I ended up extending my stay in India for an additional year and learnt a great deal about working in an emerging, fast-paced market,” reveals Gupta.

After leaving India, she took six months off, before moving to Singapore to continue working with Text100 from August 2010, where she has just completed five years with the local company.

“As a result of the secondment, my eyes were opened to how other markets throughout Asia work. With this first-hand knowledge, I can now consult organisations from the US and Europe, the Middle East and Africa on how the communication’s industry operates in Asia and vice versa,” she says.

Gupta explains by providing staff with the opportunity to work in other markets, organisations are strengthening their chances of retaining staff and building a team of well-rounded consultants.

Her colleague Cheong believes that his secondment offered another unique benefit.

“Often in a corporate environment, it’s so easy to be mired in the day-to-day tasks that we lose sight of the bigger picture. My secondment application demanded that I reflect on where I was in my career and how I wanted to shape it for the future at Text100,” he explains.

“It has helped me to tackle challenges from various angles by adopting different perspectives of the problem – an asset that would have been much more difficult to attain if I hadn’t had such an opportunity.”

He strongly feels there is a lot that can be learnt through secondments, be they in an overseas office or even if the agency’s employee is attached to a client’s in-house team.

“The change in environment also keeps things exciting as there are different workplace dynamics to adjust to. Planning ahead and communicating closely with line managers on both sides’ expectations is important to gaining the most benefit from secondment opportunities while managing the employee’s workload,” he adds.

Benefits of sabbaticals

Wong’s sabbatical saw her travelling for a long period of time, something she says that stretched herself and also helped her realise how independent she could be.

“Embarking on this trip revealed to me how much I wanted to fulfil my childhood dream and to stay true to myself without the influences of societal norms and values, and that realisation makes me both happy and proud,” she says.

Wong strongly believes it is imperative for everyone to focus on both their personal and professional development.

“Taking a break from work is a good way for employees to stretch and to allow them to step up and explore new areas. A happy worker is a productive worker. This positive behaviour will improve organisational performances and effectiveness,” she states.

Tellingly, she says she did not feel worried that she was potentially missing out on professional advantages, such as potential promotions, during her sabbatical.

“I did think about that, but at the end of the day, I prefer to live a life in the way that I like and not what society wants,” she adds.

This sentiment was also echoed by Mabel Chiang, Senior Account Director, Text100, who also engaged in a two-month paid sabbatical.

In fact, Chiang says what she felt was the opposite of being worried.

“To be awarded the paid sabbatical was a form of recognition,” she explains.

“What can be gained from a sabbatical is far more valuable than the fear of delayed promotions or career progression.”

Chiang, who has been with the business for more than eight years now, says the offer of two months to herself was “hard to resist”.

“I saw it as a great opportunity to hit a reset button and recharge! Not many organisations offer such a benefit, and it is truly an effective and rewarding arrangement for employees,” she reveals.

Citing that her sabbatical was “precious” and that she “wanted to use it wisely”, Chiang says her ultimate goal was to come out of it feeling inspired and refreshed – which she certainly achieved.

“I enrolled in enrichment courses, participated in fitness programmes, and also travelled to New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong and Thailand. The sabbatical was a mini project that basically involved prioritising time for things that are ‘soul food’ which help rejuvenate oneself,” she elaborates.

From a personal standpoint, Chiang reveals the sabbatical was also a good morale booster. She knew her hard work was being recognised and appreciated by the business.

“At the same time, I also found renewed energy to continue pursuing my career path and came back a healthier me; both mentally and physically. From a professional standpoint, stepping away from the daily grind in the dynamic and fast paced environment we work in helped provide fresh perspectives and inspired vision,” she says.

Chiang believes a sabbatical is not the only way to help employees engage in their own pursuits.

She says organisations can also look at alternative arrangements or policies that offer flexibility or certain incentives that could be put towards personal pursuits.

“Ultimately, the journey of growth should be an on-going affair regardless if one takes time out on a sabbatical for their own pursuits. Ideally, our lives should accommodate both our personal and career pursuits. The onus is on us to pursue our own success and aspirations but having an organisation that is supportive of that would make it very conducive,” adds  Chiang.

Seven reasons why employee sabbaticals are a winning notion

  • Employees return rejuvenated and frequently feel like they have a new job
  • Employees garner inspiration for new ways to grow the business
  • Employees can focus on personal goals
  • Younger employees have the chance to grow in their positions
  • Employees are encouraged to stay with the organisation
  • Firms show they care about what employees want and need
  • Companies experience reduced employee turnover

Source: Charles Coy, “7 Reasons Employee Sabbaticals Are a Winning Idea”, Cornerstone Blog


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