Sabbaticals – good for staff and business

Alex
Blyth investigates foreign work sabbaticals and the benefits to business

Jacqueline
Hill had been a management consultant at the Hay Group for six years. She was
bored of working for the same company and was about to start looking for a new
job.

However,
more than two years later, she is still at the Hay Group, happy in her work and
as productive as ever. Her employers achieved this remarkable feat of staff
retention by allowing her a year off to work as a volunteer at a
non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Bangladesh.

The
practice is becoming increasingly popular. According to research conducted by
volunteer travel specialists, i-to-i, 51 per cent of people in their 20s and
30s want to see the world, but 42 per cent of them never do it because they
fear they might be out of work on their return.

This
is worrying for employers because employees tend to channel their frustrated
wanderlust into looking for a new job. Allowing staff time off to volunteer
overseas is seen as a way out of the problem.

Voluntary
Service Overseas (VSO) has run its Business Partnership scheme since 1999.
Volunteers from Accenture, Shell, PWC, McKinseys, Boston Consulting, SAP and HP
Foods are sent each year on six to nine month secondments in the developing
world. Katherine Carver, corporate partnerships manager at VSO, says: “One of
the major benefits to employers is that it helps them to keep staff who want a
change but want to do more than just travelling for a year.”

Retention
is far from the only benefit. Research commissioned by Accenture in 2003 found
that 90 per cent of employees felt that it would teach them skills that would
benefit them in their job, and Eoghan Mackie, chief executive of Challenges
Worldwide, emphasises this aspect. “Each assignment is structured to maximise
personal and professional development. Before leaving, volunteers individually
with a coach to set goals and on return are assessed against these at regular
intervals.”

The
skills most frequently mentioned are adaptability, interpersonal communications,
problem solving, innovation, and tolerance. As Christine Kent, chief executive
at Raleigh International, says: “Training programmes can get very tired and
this is an original and effective way of developing your staff, as well as
doing good for society.”

The
benefit of being seen as a responsible corporate is attractive to many, but is
rarely the primary motivation.

For
the last decade, Zurich Financial Services has had a programme in India to
which it sends about eight staff a year on four-week secondments. They apply
their skills in IT strategy, organisational culture, performance management,
communications strategy and so on to eye hospitals, disability charities,
mental health organisations and others.

Chris
Staples, community affairs director, says: “There is certainly a reputational
benefit, but it also offers opportunities for focussed skills development,
confidence building and motivation.”

Volunteering
overseas had a major impact on Jacqueline Hill. She says: “I now volunteer one
day a week for local NGOs, and am happy making a difference in that way. It was
great that Hay Group gave me the time to volunteer overseas, but it did make me
realise how much I enjoyed my life here in the UK.”

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