THE HUMAN FACTOR - In inner city areas, providing help with reading to primary school children has been known to turn aggressive managers into patient charmers.

by Patience Wheatcroft, business and City editor of The Times
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In inner city areas, providing help with reading to primary school children has been known to turn aggressive managers into patient charmers.

As this year's crop of lucky youngsters head off on their gap-year travels they leave behind some envious parents. For many of those now in the upper echelons of business moved straight from education to the workplace and have been toiling ever since.

But there is some truth in the saying 'All work and no play make Jack a dull boy'. Enlightened companies realise the advantages of encouraging executives to extend their horizons beyond the office.

Unilever has instituted a scheme that allows senior people to take a six-month sabbatical. While receiving a full salary, people are free to follow their dreams. Usually, these involve travel to faraway places and often, in order to make the budget balance, executives may experience life away from the top-class hotels that they frequented as business travellers.

Six months is long enough to travel with a purpose, perhaps to spend time with an overseas charity. For the adventurous, there is the opportunity to hoist the sails and do battle with the oceans. Others choose to spend their freedom tapping out the book they'd always threatened to write.

Opponents of such schemes argue that they encourage discontent. Their suspicion is that the sabbatical will be so much more rewarding than the day job that the individual may decide against returning to work. But Unilever's experience is the opposite. The company has found that its executives return to work refreshed and re-energised, their loyalty to the business enhanced. And their positive attitude spreads to those they work with, for they are generally keen to talk about where they have been and what they have done. The prospect that they too could look forward to fulfilling a long-held ambition is likely to motivate colleagues.

Not every company would be able to emulate the Unilever scheme. In a multinational with many thousands of employees, executives regularly change roles and even locations, so scheduling the occasional sabbatical would not be hard. But in smaller organisations, to allow key people to vanish for several months would be difficult. Equally, in smaller, cash-strapped businesses, paying people to take an extended holiday for which cover would have to be hired might seem unthinkable. Coping with the obligations imposed by maternity and other leave already causes headaches in small businesses.

But the principle of allowing staff to re-energise may make economic sense even for smaller businesses. A six-month sabbatical on full pay may look like an unaffordable luxury, but companies need not follow that example to stop executives sinking into a rut. Virgin, for instance, offers many workers the chance to take extended leave without pay and finds that those who take it show their gratitude with enhanced loyalty.

For most executives, a period of several months away from the desk is unlikely to occur more than once in a career. Yet the benefits of an injection of variety into the work routine can be had from much less dramatic changes.

Many companies have discovered that encouraging staff to get involved in a charitable effort can pay multiple dividends: the recipients of the charity benefit; the company gains an enhanced reputation in the community; the individuals involved feel better about themselves and each other - and that will show in improved performance.

Long before the boring box-tickers and compilers of hefty tomes on corporate social responsibility requisitioned the idea, enlightened companies had been involved in charitable works. Larger organisations, such as Marks & Spencer, would regularly second executives to provide help to charities, an experience in some cases akin to a sabbatical. But even half a day a month spent outside the office working for a good cause can provide the fillip that will reinvigorate a jaded executive.

In inner city areas, providing help with reading to primary school children has turned aggressive managers into patient charmers. The complete transformation may be only temporary, but there can be more long-lasting effects: companies report that providing this sort of support to local schools lifts morale.

Investment banks offer their staff the opportunity to volunteer a portion of their working time for a charitable effort. The choices made often involve hard labour, in contrast to their usual working day.

It might not be as instantly desirable as the prospect of six months exploring Thailand, but an afternoon spent as part of a team on a home-building project can be a stressbuster for an overwrought executive.

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