UK-based digital marketing agency Hallam has an impressive track record for success. As Google’s top-performing partner for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, the agency won the Google Growing Business Online 2019 award. Hallam has also picked up the Drum Grand Prix 2019 award – the industry’s top accolade – for the second year in a row.
As part of a focus on employee wellbeing, the agency has introduced a policy allowing team members to take sabbaticals. Stanley Dunthorne, an SEO specialist, became the first to benefit when he took an eight-month break to travel around the world – and a second team member is also lining up a sabbatical.
Susan Hallam MBE is the agency’s founder and CEO. In this interview, she discusses the reasons behind the policy, how it has been implemented, and the benefits it is bringing to both business and individuals.
Established in 2000 with offices in Nottingham and London, Hallam develops digital campaigns for world leading brands including the United Nations, Speedo, Raleigh, as well as having specialist expertise working in the SaaS, life sciences and manufacturing sectors.
Why did you decide to implement a sabbatical policy for employees at Hallam?
An important part of our culture is looking after our employees. And that means more than just beer o’clock and fresh fruit.
We asked our colleagues what is most important to them – and there was a universal consensus they wanted time and flexibility for personal and professional development.
And it is a great way to say thank you to our colleagues who have worked with us for a long time.
“It is a great way to say thank you to our colleagues who have worked with us for a long time.”
Did you have any initial reservations, and if so, how did you address them?
We had all the usual concerns – how will the role be covered whilst away on sabbatical, what are the guidelines and eligibility requirements, what impact will it have on colleagues, what will our clients think?
Fortunately, there is quite a bit of guidance available on developing a sabbatical policy, and we took advice from our HR advisors.
When the first member of your team took the opportunity for a travel sabbatical, how did you prepare for his departure?
Collaboration is standard practice for our agency, so we had processes in place to document work in progress and to get the team to coordinate coverage.
There was some shuffling of work as we had another colleague returning from maternity leave, and we were also in the process of converting what was temporary cover into a permanent role.
Did you have any contact while he was away, or was it a complete break?
The origin of the word ‘sabbatical’ derives from the Old Testament practice of letting fields lie fallow every seven years. If you are going to let colleagues rest and lie fallow… then that means no contact. We offer a complete break.
How were his responsibilities covered in his absence?
The responsibilities were covered by a combination of temporary cover and a reallocation of existing human resources. And there was also the opportunity for my junior members of the team to step up and take some new responsibilities.
Of course we missed having him around, but we managed just fine during his sabbatical.
“Our sabbatical policy has been a huge success.”
How did you manage the process of his return to the office after the trip?
To be honest, he just slipped right back into his job as though he had never been away.
There were the usual collaborative handovers and debriefings, and we scheduled meetings with key stakeholders to update on changes that had happened within the company. And of course there was a warm welcome for him on his first day back.
Have there been any changes or developments in his approach to work after returning?
We operate in a fast-moving industry, and the ability to cope with change is one of our core values. Stan came back refreshed and recharged.
Are there any learnings from this first experience that you will draw upon when another employee takes a sabbatical?
One of our main learnings was to communicate more widely to the whole company what was happening during the sabbatical, how it was being organised, and sharing more information.
Do you believe it has been beneficial to your business to give employees the opportunity to take a travel sabbatical?
Our sabbatical policy has been a huge success. Recruiting and retaining the best talent is one of our greatest challenges, and our commitment to employee wellbeing as demonstrated by sabbaticals means we put skin in the game.
What do you think are the career benefits of sabbaticals to individuals?
We hire highly talented, well educated individuals who are driven and career-focused. A sabbatical is a great way to step back, slow down, and reflect on what’s most important in life.
As an employer we know career is important… but so is your own wellbeing. And a sabbatical means coming back to the team refreshed and recharged.
What advice would you give to other business owners who are considering a sabbatical policy or programme?
There are a number of obligations that employers need to consider when creating a sabbatical policy, so be sure to get advice or do your homework. But don’t fall into the “analysis paralysis” trap.
We created a sabbatical policy as a response to a request by a colleague, but we have already had another person ready to take advantage. Clearly, there is pent-up demand for sabbaticals, so just get on and do it!
If you enjoyed this, also check out our interview with Nina Mack, a small business owner in the digital industry who granted sabbatical leave to an employee. She discusses the experience of implementing the sabbatical process, and how it has been beneficial to the business.
You can read stories from inspiring people who have taken travel sabbaticals in our career gapper interview series, and learn about the career skills that travel can help to develop. If you’re planning a trip of your own, check out our ultimate career break guide.