Learning Sabbatical: How Existing Employees Are Developing New Skills for Different Roles

Aug 30, 2017 5 min readWorkplace of the future
Photo of Hailley Griffis
Hailley Griffis

Head of Communications & Content @ Buffer

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We believe in constant experimentation and self-improvement at Buffer. You might know this if you’ve followed along with our trying self-management or making regular changes to our vacation policy to try and find the best fit.

Well, we’re experimenting again at Buffer, and this time it’s with teammates taking a learning sabbatical.

A conventional sabbatical is generally a period of paid leave granted to someone for study or travel, they can vary in length and frequency. A learning sabbatical is a little different. In our case, the main goal of a learning sabbatical is to have a Buffer teammate spend roughly three months learning and developing a new skill or ability so they can adapt within Buffer to our changing needs.

Right now our learning sabbatical is set at 12 weeks at 50 percent pay and is supervised by a direct manager with regular progress check-ins (sort of similar to what we do during Buffer bootcamp).

We’ve had one successful learning sabbatical at Buffer, and a second one is in the works.

Let’s take a look at why we felt the need for a learning sabbatical, how it was designed, and what the future of learning sabbaticals might look like for us. ?

Learning Sabbatical: How Existing Employees Are Developing New Skills for Different Roles Buffer

Why We Kicked Off Buffer’s First Ever Learning Sabbatical

We’re a team of roughly 70 people at Buffer, and we do things a little differently. Whether it’s the fact that we publish our salaries online or all work from our own homes, we’ve always looked to walk on our own path. It’s no different for fundraising. We did a round of fundraising in 2014 that was completely transparent and now we’re focused on having a healthy bank balance and have chosen to operate primarily based on cash flow and profitability rather than fundraising.

As a result, we haven’t been hiring a ton at Buffer, and we don’t have plans to do large amounts of hiring in the near future either. This means our primary focus when it comes to our team is helping them learn and develop so that we can all keep moving Buffer forward even as the company and product needs evolve.

Our first ever learning sabbatical came up when we made a shift in how we do customer research. What was initially a team of three was condensed to a team of one. For the two teammates who were no longer doing customer research, one moved to work 50 percent on the advocacy team and 50 percent on the marketing team, and the other bravely embarked on Buffer’s first ever learning sabbatical.

Our learning sabbatical champion here is Tom Dunn. Prior to the sabbatical he had shown personal interest in learning more about design over the years, even dabbling in it a little for his side projects. When first conversations around potentially making changes to the customer research team came about, it was Joel who thought up the idea of a learning sabbatical and started chatting about it with Tom.

From that initial idea of a learning sabbatical, to the start of the 12-week sabbatical itself, there were six months in between where the details were hammered out to make sure the sabbatical felt good to Tom and our product design team, where Tom would be spending his sabbatical.

How The Learning Sabbatical Was Designed and Personalized

While some sabbaticals might have people leave completely and then come back in three months, that wasn’t quite what we had in mind and didn’t suit Tom’s learning style.

Instead, we did an in-house apprenticeship with Dave (our Product Design Lead) supervising Tom to work on one project. In this project, Tom would be able to play around with a real part of Buffer and learn with regular feedback from Dave.

This way, Tom could learn both from Dave and in his own style, which was primarily online tutorials, watching videos, and even Googling something when a problem arose that he wasn’t sure of.

Before beginning the sabbatical, Tom’s role was really well detailed and outlined so that expectations were clear on all sides.

We also intentionally designed the learning sabbatical so that Tom still felt like a full teammate at Buffer. He was still in all of the communication channels and attended the team retreat in Madrid. Tom wasn’t any less a part of the Buffer team, he was just focused on specific learning goals for that time frame.

The regular check ins that Tom had with Dave were also crucial according to him. The first ever design that Tom submitted to Dave about two weeks into is sabbatical was according to him, “so so bad and we all knew it.” That was Tom’s biggest scare as it was quite early into the sabbatical. He focused on redo-ing it and the next take was far better. He mentioned the checks ins were really alleviated anxiety because he had a regular pulse on how he was doing.

Learning Sabbatical: How Existing Employees Are Developing New Skills for Different Roles Buffer Working

The Future of Learning Sabbaticals at Buffer

There’s a saying that you should try anything once, but should you do it again? For learning sabbaticals we tried it once, and it went very well. So well in fact, that we’re already trying it again!

Another teammate has embarked on a learning sabbatical designed in the same way that Tom’s was. This teammate worked with their lead to develop their sabbatical plan and is now receiving 50 percent of their salary while participating in regular check-ins and taking online courses. They’re working to level up a specific set of skills by the end of the 12-week period.

Learning falls nicely in line with our company value of self-improvement, and recently Deb from our People team has taken over learning and development. She’s already created the $20 monthly stipend for Buffer employees to take courses and learn something new of their choosing, whether or not it’s related to their current role.

The future of learning sabbaticals at Buffer is closely tied with our desire to help create the future of work. There’s a quote from Stephanie Ricci, Head of Learning at AXA that’s really powerful in explaining how much impact learning will have for employees in the future:

“By 2020, the core skills required by jobs are not on the radar today, hence we need to rethink the development of skills, with 50% of our jobs requiring significant change in terms of skillset”

That is a huge amount of jobs that will require new skills and for organizations and workers that means a lot of learning and developing.

For Buffer to be successful as a company our team needs to be ready to learn new things, adapt to new situations and take on new projects. That means there could very well be more learning sabbaticals on Buffer’s horizon, or smaller initiatives like more time spent taking courses that help existing skillsets as well.

Over to You

What did you think of our version of a learning sabbatical? Do you think this is something you’d ever try? I’d love to learn more about how you go about learning or any best practices in the comments!

Cover photo by Olu Eletu

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