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How a mid-sized NYC PR agency uses sabbaticals to drive their success

One of the most common misconceptions I come across is that only large companies can provide sabbatical leave for their employees. N6A, a PR Agency based in New York City, is a perfect example of how valuable a sabbatical program can be for small to medium-sized companies as well.

I recently had a chat with Nina Velasquez, who is the EVP of Talent Development at N6A, to learn more about how their sabbatical program flourished.

Why N6A chose a sabbatical program

N6A was founded in 2009 and have since grown to 40 employees. Matt Rizetta, the CEO, was aware of the increasing impact of burnout facing professionals in the PR industry. He was attracted to the concept of sabbaticals and wanted to give it a try. When weighing the pros and cons of sabbaticals versus unlimited vacation, Nina and the team realised an important consideration, "The challenge with unlimited paid time off is that, more often than not, you really can’t take a vacation any time you want. If that were the case, you would book trips every month." Nina went on to explain that there is a sense of guilt when taking time off due to the extra workload that you know you are leaving your team with, which often causes you to actually take less time off because it’s your responsibility to make the right decisions for you and your team.

"The challenge with unlimited paid time off is that, more often than not, you really can’t take a vacation any time you want."

They realised providing well-supported sabbaticals would be a better way to ensure they had happy, healthy employees to fuel N6A’s growth.

How they implemented the program

Employees are rewarded with paid month-long sabbaticals, in addition to vacation, each year if they hit their performance goals.

Nina commented on the reactions that surfaced when they first considered incorporating sabbatical leave into their company framework, saying, "Our managers and directors were actually on the fence about it when we brought it up because they realised they would be down a person for a whole month, and 'How are we going to pull that off?'". She went on to say that being a smaller agency was in fact, one of the pros of the situation since it was easier to roll out the changes with only 20 people involved at the time of launch. The biggest challenge they faced was initially starting the program, "When we first rolled it out, it was a bit of trial and error in terms of being seamless with the handovers.”

Every team individually plans in advance to ensure duties are covered effectively while they are a member down. Each group had to adjust depending on what the role of the person on sabbatical leave. The directors would put together a staffing plan for each month and assign projects accordingly, taking everybody's workload into account, the agency priorities and the upcoming sabbaticals. The key is being open to adjusting objectives and making sure sabbaticals are planned a couple of months in advance.

When they initially began the program, managers assumed everyone would need to work an extra 1-2 hours a day to get the work done but, the opposite happened! Nina went on to explain, "That wasn't the case at all, it was a matter of reorganizing the priorities for the month, and it taught us that everybody should work like this even if you don’t have a sabbatical program!”

"It taught us that everybody should work like this even if you don’t have a sabbatical program!"

Many of the team members at N6A are part of the millennial and Gen Z generations who are eager to work hard to progress their careers but also value having a life outside of work. They have embraced their sabbatical leave with encouragement from their managers who let them know that they deserve it!

Business results for N6A

Unsurprisingly, the results of their program were very positive, Nina explains “It was so obvious that the reward was good and people came back with a renewed energy and commitment. It was very clear that it was a good program. We needed to work at it in the beginning and it was a journey, but it forced us to think about efficiency and productivity and how to improve our time management."

The sabbatical program has resulted in increased levels of trust, close collaboration, and commitment to everyone’s wellbeing at N6A. Upon their return to the office, the majority of employees expressed feelings of being refreshed and ready to get back to their responsibilities which provided a boost to the team’s overall productivity!

"People came back with a renewed energy and commitment. It was very clear that it was a good program."

Why it worked

 N6A were successful in implementing their sabbatical program and realising benefits because of a few key factors

The agency’s effective planning not only supports the sabbatical program but provides an opportunity for team members to collaborate, step up and grow. This strengthens the organisation, reduces key-person dependencies and provides succession planning opportunities.

It’s also vital to have the program embedded in operations and treated as a company procedure that is just as important as regular leave (if not, more!).

Lastly, it's essential that the company is culturally supportive of the sabbatical program and firmly reminds its employees that they deserve time off when they perform well. Team members need to trust that their role will be covered while they're gone, and also help to lift the load when others are enjoying their sabbatical. This means everyone can be in the right frame of mind to harness the full potential of their time off!

N6A’s story shows that sabbatical programs are not just for large corporates. If embedded into the DNA of an organisations operations and culture, sabbaticals can be a powerful way to maintain wellbeing, increase productivity and help to attract and retain the best talent.

If you’d like to learn more about how your company could leverage the benefits of a sabbatical program, contact us for a free consultation. We have industry best practice, employee toolkits and implementation know-how to ensure you get it right first time.  


Lyndall Farley is the founder of Beyond a Break – helping companies implement sabbatical programs to improve wellbeing and helping people optimise their sabbatical experience. 


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