Why I Put My Company on a Year-Long Sabbatical

23 Mar 2020

Glastonbury – an example in the productivity of sabbaticals.

This article was originally written for and published by Harvard Business Review.

Last year, I placed my entire communications agency, Global Tolerance, on a year’s sabbatical. On the surface, it seemed like a crazy decision. I’d spent the past decade building the company from scratch, hiring a talented team, winning high-profile clients, from TED and The Gallup Organization to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Gandhi’s grandson, and increasing revenues every year. Why would I put all that on hold?

The answer is simple: So we could come back even better.

The very idea of a sabbatical, a rest from work, comes from the biblical sabbath, and a commandment to stop working the fields every seven years. This is so Mother Nature can renew the fields and help ensure the possibility of future harvests. Businesses have long reaped rewards from biomimicry, the imitation of natural systems to solve human problems. If the flight of pigeons can inspire the first aircraft; termites can provide lessons for energy-efficient buildings; and butterfly wings can influence next-generation phone displays, why shouldn’t we cultivate the idea of fallow fields for our office lives?

For many years, Global Tolerance had been enjoying a daily 60-second sabbatical through a simple daily ritual. Weekdays at 530pm, I would ask the team to share a minute of silence around a powerful question, such as “What does it really mean to grow?” or “What’s your favorite childhood memory?” We called it “the sound of silence,” and the results were extraordinary. The exercise left the team feeling deeply connected, to themselves and each other, and led to creative ideas for clients.

So how did I move from 60 seconds a day to a full year of everyone’s lives?

On a personal level, my frenetic work building the company was beginning to take a toll at home. I was unwittingly neglecting my wife, my family, my friends, and myself as well. In October of 2010, I became sick, bed-ridden for two months. But still I ploughed on.

On an organizational level, even though we were growing, we seemed to be constantly juggling the increasing demands for client work and the commercial realities of cash flow. We needed a radical, reflective look at the mission and business of Global Tolerance, and this could only be done by taking some serious time out.

I also realized there was precedent. Glastonbury, one of the biggest music festivals in the world, regularly skips a year for the same reasons they did in biblical times. The English fields on which it’s held need time to be restored, and anticipation for the festival’s return is greater than ever. As Michael Eavis, the founder of the festival, says about the sabbatical: “It’s a rest for the countryside, for the kingfishers on the river, the owls in the oak trees. They too get a breather. And the fallow year was the best thing I ever did. It gives value to our integrity.” Stefan Sagmeister places his New York design agency one a one-year break every seven years as well. He’s designed space for rest and reflection into his business model, and the creative ideas that emerge from that year feed the next long period of work.

Suddenly, the relentless pursuit of revenue, profits and impact at the expense of personal health, wellbeing and relationships seemed to be the crazy approach. So I decided Global Tolerance should take the plunge.

Logistically, this wasn’t easy. Our HR people said there was no such thing as a company sabbatical. It had never been done before. People would need to resign, or be sacked. I ignored HR and trusted in the integrity of my team and our shared ability to come up with a solution that worked for everyone. I made sure to start the conversation early. We had numerous discussions, individually and collectively, to work out what the sabbatical would look like, and what it would mean for each person. The conventional wisdom in this situation would be to ensure our clients wouldn’t be taken, but I decided to turn this on its head. In fact, for a couple of staff, I negotiated ways in which they could set up as freelancers and take our clients with them. The clients appreciated not being left in the lurch. The team members were happy as they got to earn more money working less hours, while also learning the leadership skills that come with running one’s own business.

We’re all trained to be ambitious. We want to grow, win, succeed-and it feels wrong to stop, even for a moment. But what does it really mean to grow? To win? To succeed? Global Tolerance might not be racking up profits this year, but as I sit here with my baby daughter giggling in the room next door, I can safely say this has been my greatest year of growth. Colleagues report similar experiences. Some are focusing on former passions; others are trying new experiences.

I realize that for most people, it’s simply not practical to take a sabbatical. But as we learned in our “sound of silence” exercise, even 60 seconds of quiet time can help. Better yet, take a day or a week. If you’re a manager, allow your employees to do so. And if you’re a corporate leader, consider institutionalizing a sabbatical system as a means of supporting your workers. When we do stop, and give ourselves time to listen to our bodies, and learn from the patient pace of nature, then our growth and success are imbued with new meaning.