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Sabbatical #6: The company that gladly pays for sabbaticals

How Podia keeps employee retention high with paid breaks

Welcome to the sixth issue of Sabbatical — an exploration of the future of work, modern life, and travel. Sent every month-ish. (Submit your sabbatical story for a future issue here.)

See last month’s issue here. Since then, 26 totally chill people have signed up. That's 146 subscribers. Woo! If you dig these issues, please forward along to any travel-loving, career-pondering friends!

I’ve also started posting Sabbatical videos! See the first one on LinkedIn here — more to come.

Today's Itinerary

The Debrief: Len Markidan, COO of Podia

This debrief is a bit different than previous issues. Yes, Len took a sabbatical — but that’s not the main reason we’re speaking to him today. Len is the COO of Podia, a platform for creators and small online businesses. And his company has the most generous sabbatical policy I’ve ever seen: fully paid month after your first three years. After that employees get a sabbatical every two years.

Today, we’re taking a look at sabbaticals from the employee side of the equation. Hopefully, this helps you build a similar program at your company.

We spoke about why his company is so bullish on taking extended breaks and why they’re not worried about employe attrition.


Why did you take your sabbatical?

Podia had a pretty standard PTO policy since its founding. But then in 2020, the pandemic happened.

There were many layers to how that impacted the mental health of our employees — of all of us. And a lot of people had kids at home and had obligations outside of work that were draining on their time. I don't have to rehash that though, because we all lived through it.

So in 2022, inspired by some other companies, we rolled out a sabbatical policy. In the summer of 2023, I went on a one month sabbatical where I traveled with my wife and son. We went to visit some friends and family in San Francisco and then we visited Vancouver and the beautiful US state of Alaska.

A view from Len’s Alaskan cruise

Why instill a sabbatical policy? I’m sure some would think, “Why am I paying for a month off of an employee? They could just leave!” What was the logic at the leadership level?

You want the long version or the short version?

Long. Let’s get into it.

There are three real benefits to a company for having sabbaticals. The first is energy. The second is perspective. The third is resilience

Energy is the most obvious one. When you take PTO you’re not recharging. You're getting a hall pass to skip work for other obligations. You're going to weddings, you're taking days off because your kid's school is closed. I took a few days off earlier this month to move. 

What most people are left with is this small handful of vacation days that actually belong to you and that are actually being used for anything resembling a vacation. A sabbatical creates space for rest. A sabbatical is just this rare opportunity to not have to fit your life around work. You can, you can handle the life stuff, yes, but still recharge you with the rest of the time. And you come back rested and energized and not exhausted the way that almost everybody comes back from a three or four day vacation. 

And benefit number two?

The perspective that you get from such a dramatic pattern interruption in your life. Most of us spend most of our work day on tasks. And it turns out the brain can do some really neat stuff when it's not focused on a task. About two weeks into my sabbatical, my thoughts did drift back to work. More in a zoomed out, “Hm, maybe I've been thinking about this thing wrong the whole time” kind of way.

You have these thoughts, you can't really act on them because you're off work, but that's part of the beauty of it. Your ideas have space and time to just sit and develop and change and grow. And when you come back to work, you see it differently and that can make a really big positive impact.

This sounds like a weird thing for a manager to say, but we've had situations where someone comes back from sabbatical and says, “You know, after giving us a lot of thought, I've decided I actually want to take my career in a different direction.” And they left. And that's great. 

There is no long-term good that comes from two people being in a relationship that one of them doesn't want to be in. And in a lot of cases, without the sabbatical, those feelings of dissatisfaction or of being in the wrong place, they sit under the surface because there's no time and there's a space for them. And they just grow and fester and get worse and worse until the person just really hates their job, and resents their boss. 

People will often change jobs just because they think the grass is greener. They just want a change of scenery or they're bored or they're burned out. But when they go on sabbatical, they discover that they really just needed a recharge. It's a great way to give people that perspective without them having to actually leave their job to find it. 

We have energy and perspective. What’s number three?

You build a much more resilient organization. Of course there's the cultural strengthening that happens when people have this shared experience of planning on and going on their sabbaticals. They get excited about these experiences and they come back and they share photos and stories and they get their teammates thinking about what they want to do on their sabbaticals. 

But then there's a less obvious strengthening of the organization. And that comes from forcing gaps in the resources that are available to the team. In programming, there's this concept of “chaos engineering.” Where you force failure into a system to build resiliency and companies have done this in a bunch of different ways, but probably my favorite example and maybe the most prominent example is Netflix. 

Their team built a program they called “chaos monkey”. It essentially just unplugged servers at random to ensure that the system was resilient enough to deal with the consequences of that happening. And that caused them to build and to strengthen their infrastructure to basically be sure that the things still function when those critical resources went offline. 

That's not so different from what happens when an organization has somebody go away for four weeks. It can just make it very clear where you have fragility in your workflows, in your process, in your business. And because the pain isn't going to go away while that person that you think you need is away, it motivates the team to fix things on their own. And that is a very, very powerful skill to build in a team. 

How long has this been in place at Podia? 

We implemented the system in 2021 and the first person took a sabbatical the next year. The policy was that you get a sabbatical every three years with the company. After this first kind of cohort of sabbaticals in 2023, we got together and we said, “Wow, that was extremely powerful”. So much so for both employees and the organization that we increased it. 

Now you get a sabbatical after three years and then it's every two years after that.

I’ve seen companies do four or five year sabbatical cadences but never two. Is that a testament to something unique about either Podia or remote work or knowledge work?

I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but most companies in our industry are on this kind of venture capital track of, “We're going to raise tons of money. We're going to spend it as quickly as possible to test this model and then scale it.” 

What you're effectively doing, even though you're not deliberately saying it, is admitting that employees are basically fungible. There's going to be some expectation that if we hire X number of people, we're going to have Y percent attrition, either voluntary or involuntary. And we want to hit some total headcount number over time. 

Podia is very different. We have not taken that path. We raised a seed round, but for the last four years, have effectively been operating as a bootstrapped company. We decided when the pandemic hit, we're just gonna go for profitability. We're gonna try to be as sustainable as possible, and build an enduring business and not really worry about the rat race. I can count on one hand, the number of people who have voluntarily left Podia in my memory since I joined in 2017. 

For a lot of companies, if somebody is really burnt out and tired and needs a break, they'd rather just have that person leave and replace them than pay them for four weeks off every couple of years. 

If a Podia employee who was about to embark on their sabbatical asked you for advice, what would you tell them?

Don’t have a goal.

I did not say, “I'm not touching my laptop for four weeks”, or “I'm completing X personal project during the sabbatical.” Because if I had a goal and then I didn't achieve it, then I would have failed sabbatical. And can you imagine anything more demoralizing than failing at rest?

You can have a loose plan. Do not have a goal. Anything you accomplish on your sabbatical is, you know, that's frosting on the cake, but please do not set yourself a goal that you can fail.

What do you say to your fellow founders, executives, and people who are responsible for setting a sabbatical policy? What would your suggestion be for them to pursue this thoughtfully? 

Make sure your most experienced employees are your guinea pigs for this. Those are the employees who, whether you think they're happy or not, are probably the most likely to be getting emails from recruiters. To be looking at other jobs, to be interviewing for other things. 

Very few of them will come back and say “I thought about it and I'd like to figure something else out.” Most of them will come back and say, “Wow, this was exactly what I needed. I am more focused, more productive and more excited to get back to work. It's almost like coming back and starting a new job all over again.”

If you love something, let it go.