Career gapper interviews

A small business owner who granted a travel sabbatical to an employee

More businesses are offering career breaks to employees; this story shows how, with care, the arrangement can work well for everyone.

Nina Mack is the managing director and owner of Worship.agency, a conversion optimisation and user experience design agency based in Manchester, UK. She has been creating and optimising websites for nearly 20 years. When a member of the team approached her asking for a three-month travel sabbatical, she found a way to make it work.

In this interview, Nina discusses the first considerations when an employee asks for a sabbatical, the preparations for their departure, how she managed the situation with other staff, and the possible benefits for small businesses.

Since forming Worship in 2009, Nina has been primarily focused on creating persuasive user experiences and understanding what makes users take (or not take) the client’s most desired action on a website. The Worship team are specialists in helping e-commerce and financial services businesses to change the way people behave on their websites, so more people buy.

As a small business owner, what do you need to consider when an employee asks to take a career break to travel?

My first thought was “oh god – how are we going to cope without him for three months?!”. Then, with a bit of thinking and discussion, I started to see that there may be a way to make it work.

The things I considered were:

  • What will the impact on service levels be?
  • What will the impact on his colleagues be?
  • How am I going to find someone to do his work for such a short contract?
  • Will it be disruptive to the business on a scale we can’t handle?
  • If we say no, will he just leave?
  • What if he doesn’t come back from South America?!

When this situation arose at your workplace, what was your approach?

We looked at how the employee in question could prepare in a way that meant his team could pick up his work, but not have to do the whole task.

Because of the nature of our work, we were able to look at the coming months and see what was going to be needed. That meant that the employee in question could do some of the work before he went, leaving his colleagues to execute on the pre-agreed plan while he was away.

This approach reduced the amount of work required while he was away and meant that his team didn’t have to go through all the client approvals and design processes, because that was already done.

Nina Mack Worship Agency
Nina has been creating and optimising websites for nearly 20 years

Did you seek any external advice before making your decision?

No – I just thought about it, made a plan and discussed it with his team. In retrospect I think I have now set a precedent in the company, so if others request it I may have an issue saying no.

I could have consulted an HR professional or someone with knowledge of employment law I guess, but it didn’t feel necessary, so we just got on with it.

I think you can overcomplicate things when you get too many people involved (especially lawyers!), so I kept it simple and just involved the people that would be impacted.

How did you prepare for the employee’s absence? Did you make any special arrangements?

He took it as unpaid leave, so I asked his team if they wanted me to get someone in to support them, or if they wanted to take some extra pay and do the work themselves. They opted for the extra pay of course.

The team were happy to do the work, and it made sense for our clients to work with the existing team rather than getting in external contractors.

Did you maintain any contact with the employee while he was on his career break?

He sent us some pictures on Slack, and that was about it!

We didn’t want to distract him with his adventure, so we kept minimal contact. I certainly wasn’t emailing him every week with questions or problems. I don’t think that would really work; it needs to be a proper break in my view.

Worship Agency offices Manchester
The team at work in the Worship.agency offices in Manchester, UK

How did you manage the process of his return to the office after the trip?

We had a handover session to share with him what had been happening and where things were at.

“I wondered if it would be a bit of a drag for him coming back, but he seemed to have a fresh energy for the role and the business.”

His teammates all sit next to him, so he was continually communicating about current task statuses and getting back into the swing of things for the first couple of days.

He scheduled catch-up calls and meetings with key clients to get a picture of what had been happening from their perspective while he was away.

Did you notice any differences in how he approached his job after he returned?

Not really, but it was nice to see that the employee was keen to come back and get back into his role. I wondered if it would be a bit of a drag for him coming back, but he seemed to have a fresh energy for the role and the business.

We really enjoyed hearing about his adventure as well.

Do you believe it has been beneficial to your business to allow an employee to take a travel career break?

I think it was beneficial, mainly because the employee in question was very grateful and so it built loyalty with a member of the team that we really valued.

“The more you can show your employer how it will be handled with minimal disruption/cost to the business, the more likely you are to get a yes.”

I think that small businesses do struggle to offer perks to employees, compared to what bigger businesses can offer. If someone asks to take a few months off to travel, and you can manage to make it work in your business, it’s a great thing to do.

It’s the sort of thing that might be refused in a bigger company because they’d be worried about everyone wanting to do it, so it’s a good opportunity to compete with the big guys on something other than salary and pension.

Members of the team at Worship
The team busy at work at the Worship.agency offices

What advice would you give about employee career breaks to other people running small businesses?

Don’t panic when someone requests one. Ask them to come up with a plan and present it to you so you can make an informed decision.

Weigh up the risks of the sabbatical versus the risk of having a resentful member of staff whose job is preventing them fulfilling their life goals.

Speak to the employee’s team and see how they think it could work/not work. Offer the team a financial incentive to cover the extra work if you can. This definitely sweetens the news they will be doing more work for three months, or whatever it ends up being.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career break but is unsure how to broach the subject with their employer?

Reassure them you are still very committed to the company and that’s why you aren’t just handing in your notice. If you’re a valued member of the team, your employer will be worried about you not coming back, so this is an important point.

Come up with a plan for how it’s going to work as part of the request, including financials for any cover required. The more you can show your employer how it will be handled with minimal disruption/cost to the business, the more likely you are to get a yes.


Interested to hear about some inspiring travel sabbaticals and how they’ve helped people to develop? Read more of our interviews:

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Nina Mack runs a digital agency in Manchester, UK. When a team member asked to take a three-month travel sabbatical, she found a way to make it work. #sabbatical #sabbaticals #smallbusiness #travelsabbatical #careerbreak

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