How SAP uses ‘social sabbaticals’ to retain employees

Here is an idea to keep employees challenged and engaged, instead of heading elsewhere: the ‘social sabbatical.’

The brainchild of enterprise software firm SAP – inspired by others with similar programs, like IBM – social sabbaticals take selected employees away from their 9-to-5 roles and throw them an intriguing challenge somewhere around the globe while working with a team to solve real problems.

Heading up that program is SAP’s global head of corporate social responsibility, Alexandra van der Ploeg. She spoke with Reuters about the value of injecting purpose and energy into work. Edited excerpts are below.

Q: What is the history of social sabbaticals?

A: We started with one small pilot program in 2012 to test the waters. It hit a nerve, because after that first year it started expanding rapidly.

To date, over 1,300 employees have participated in 51 countries, partnering with almost 500 nonprofit organizations and social enterprises, impacting 6 million lives.

Q: How does a social sabbatical work?

A: It’s an immersive program, in that you go onsite for four weeks straight. You take that time off from your regular job, work on a concrete strategic challenge that a nonprofit organization is facing and provide concrete deliverables that truly drive impact.

Q: Describe the experience?

A: It is a pressure-cooker environment. You are taking a group of employees, typically around 12, and sending them to an emerging market they have never been to before.

You are immersing them in an organization they don’t know, and putting them in a team environment, with incredibly high diversity of nationalities and age and levels of experience.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: In India, we worked with a foundation with a mission to bridge the digital divide and facilitate the adoption of technology in education. They needed expertise to develop a learning platform, to help youth learn at their own pace.

This was pre-COVID, so the timing was ideal: not only did they get the right input to make sure they had a solid digital platform, but when COVID came, they were perfectly set up to move learning content from physical environments into virtual ones.

Q: Do you advise other companies on how to set up social sabbaticals of their own?

A: We learned a lot from companies that had been working with models like this prior to us, like IBM, which was one of the forerunners. In turn, we now engage with a lot of other companies to provide advice in setting up their own programs.

What we typically do is invite other companies to join us, and leave some open slots for them. Direct exposure to the program, so they can experience it for themselves, shows the true value of what we do.

Q: How did COVID affect this program?

A: We had to pivot. Social sabbaticals were suspended, but we offered virtual pro bono consulting models with great success.

We are optimistic that we will restart the program in 2022 – maybe not full-blown across the whole portfolio, because that might be too much, but a conscious re-entry where we can test the waters.

Q: What advice would you have for other companies about starting their own social sabbaticals?

A: Don’t get scared about perceived barriers and hurdles, because they are all manageable. They key is to start small, and try testing it out first.

Make sure the learning that is taking place aligns with your leadership principles and behaviors because that varies from company to company. You need to get some real-world experience with a program like this, and you can’t do that by sitting in an office somewhere and designing something in theory.

Q: How does this program affect employees when they come back?

A: It has significant impact on employee engagement. We have seen the figures on our end: there is higher retention among social sabbatical participants.

When employees come back, they are more motivated to do their job and look for ways to incorporate that learning into their own business environment. They come back inspired about what they can do to improve things.

Any company that is serious about purpose and sustainability needs to give their employees the opportunity to experience on-the-ground what that really means. The social sabbatical does that.

(Editing by Lauren Young and Rosalba O’Brien)

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