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Sabbatical Programs Can Enhance a Firm

In the course of a long-term relationship with a practice that held high expectations of commitment, time, and performance of principals and staff, it became apparent that burnout of key performers was a high risk, and the solution seemed to be "work hard and retire early". As senior principals came closer to the age at which they could afford to retire, it also became apparent that the firm would benefit from continuing engagement by many, if not all, of those principals.

The firm had tried various things to reduce the likelihood for burnout of principals and staff, at times with our help. As one example, we helped the firm redefine project management roles, and we trained project managers and team members to be able to handle more aspects of project delivery with less principal oversight. While that shift helped, it also freed principals to take on more, which is exactly what they did, and consequently the risk of burnout remained unacceptably high.

At that time, we suggested installing a sabbatical plan, the goals of which were several:

  1. to provide opportunities for the firm's owners and leaders to recharge their batteries,
  2. to renew their commitment to the practice by freeing them of obligations to the firm for periods longer than vacations,
  3. to foster the development of successors by having them deal with others' responsibilities during the sabbaticals that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to face until their predecessors retire, and
  4. to provide additional rewards for individuals whose leadership, commitment, and performance have been instrumental in the firm's success.

Some observations:

  • Sabbatical programs in architecture and engineering firms have proven to be highly valuable to the firms…and highly valued within those firms.
  • Well-structured sabbatical programs prolong the years of active, effective practice of key individuals.
  • When sabbatical programs also apply to non-owners, they have proven to be helpful in recruitment and in retention.
  • In the long run, benefits of sabbaticals outweigh their costs.