As he stepped back into his office for the first time in a month, Aaron Weir was confronted with a whole new environment. Coworkers had erected walls around his desk and decorated the new work cubby to resemble the inside of a winery. The rest of the room was transformed into a faux vineyard with astroturf, a fountain, a pergola and trellis, a stone walking path, a row of planted grape vines, more vines laced up the walls and across the ceiling, and, of course, a sunny deck to sit, relax and snack on a charcuterie board.
This is what happens when an employee of ARCO Design/Build returns from sabbatical.
The company provides every employee with a four-week sabbatical for every five years of service. Unlike academic sabbaticals, ARCO sabbaticals do not involve any work-related activity. In fact, even checking e-mail or talking with a coworker is forbidden during those weeks. Instead, employees are encouraged to indulge in a four-week vacation (on top of their annual vacation).
“Sabbaticals are not simply allowed, they are celebrated,” said Weir, Divisional CEO at ARCO. “You get a ‘good luck’ package when you go and a little stipend for travel. We encourage people to go see the world.”
And they do. Employees’ sabbaticals have involved everything from road trips across America, living off the grid in Jamaica, a stint at a dude ranch and lots of family time, to treks to Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Croatia, Iceland and other far-flung places that don’t fit easily into regular, yearly vacations. Weir’s 2023 sabbatical (his third) involved a series of trips: time with his wife in Sedona, Scottsdale and the Turks and Caicos, and a family trip with his two young children to a water park and Lego Land in New York.
ARCO employees “are excited for the person who is going on sabbatical and root for each other to have great trips and great times with their families,” Weir said. “And they are excited to see people return.”
Hence, the office remodels. While an employee is away, coworkers complete a DIY redecoration of the employee’s workspace to reflect the places they have visited. When he went island-hopping around Hawaii on his second sabbatical, Weir returned to an office that included a middle-school style, working, model volcano. The remodeling job, which usually stays in place for several weeks, helps the returning employee relish their sabbatical and readjust to work routines.
ARCO’s sabbatical policy — a rarity in the construction and development world – generates a wealth of benefits, Weir said. First, it supports happiness, health and work-life balance among employees.
“Around the five-year mark, you start to feel a little bit worn down and you need something to help you reset,” he said. “We all get lost in the weeds and the pressures of the day. A sabbatical helps put things in perspective. It helps you reevaluate and appreciate what is really important to you personally and professionally.”
Second, the policy aids in talent retention fuels positivity and camaraderie within the company, and even improves teamwork and professional skills among staff, Weir said.
“Stepping in to cover for the person who is on sabbatical, is as much a part of company culture as going on sabbatical is,” he said.
Coworkers temporarily take on different duties, including managerial duties, tasks that are tangential to their jobs or roles they previously filled. When another staff member went on sabbatical, Weir temporarily assumed some project manager duties – something he hadn’t done in years. The result, he said, is more skilled, versatile, collaborative employees, a more agile team, and “a unique bond that galvanizes our company.”