Feature article

Why employers are granting staff mini OEs

Companies that allow these sojourns are winning staff loyalty

26 January 2023

Christchurch transport consultancy Abley couldn’t ask for a better employee referral in a recent LinkedIn post from a staff member currently overseas.

Principal transportation engineer, Jay Baththana says: “It has been two months since I left Aotearoa NZ on a six month extended leave/flexible working arrangement to spend quality time with the whānau. Forever grateful to Abley for thinking outside convention and making it happen #greatplace to work.”.

With 90 staff of 18 different ethnicities, many of whom have felt the pull back to families, or to where family hailed from, a number at the Christchurch-based company have gone off on their travels in recent months.

“We’ve got some graduates, senior engineers, technical directors, it’s definitely happening at all stages,” says Abley group manager, Richard Fry.

Pre-pandemic, the company might have been more rigid around giving their staff time away, and their senior staff might have taken sabbaticals more often than their juniors.

“But that’s gone now. With the pandemic, we’ve had a lot of pent up demand from people,” says the GM.

The conversation is starting now even before someone is hired, says Richard. They might say, ‘I haven’t been back to my home country the last few years, I want to come work for you, but I’d like to go home at some point.’

“I’ve had employees start and, within three months, take three months off. Some, like Jay, will work from home while on holiday,” he explains. The firm doesn’t suffer.

Our people understand the rhythm of the work and when it’s best to do those things, he adds. It’s good to have a bit of notice, he adds. One engineer wants to go overseas in 2023 and there’s a conference in Denmark they can attend there too, so that’s a win for everybody.

“We’ll approach it on a case by case basis and it's not limited to offshore, people can work from the family bach in Northland. We can definitely accommodate that, it’s what the pandemic taught us,” says Richard.

How is the company rewarded? “It’s good for staff morale. A happy staff are the hallmarks of a good business. And from a pragmatic perspective, the cost of recruitment and ongoing costs and impact on culture is pretty pronounced,” says Richard.

Another staff member visited family in Austria and worked half the week. “He’d been with us a few months, took family back, and worked. From a business perspective, it was workable, he could beaver away on a project,” says the manager.

And staff will bring their stories back to NZ. “Most people are passionate about transport, they’ll take the opportunity to go and visit the local infrastructure and bring that experience back,” says Richard.

Of course, trust is a big factor. “Any flexible working is a high trust model. You have to have trust in your people and they in you. You start off with a great culture and good policies and you need to know what the rule book is,” he explains.

If you’re “laissez- faire” about it, you’ll come unstuck. You need to know the rules you’re bending and breaking.

“I’d encourage SMEs to embrace it because otherwise they’re facing the cost of replacing talent. And think of the goodwill it brings. I don’t think you need to be terrified that half the staff will go off, it’s the same as any type of leave,” says Richard.

HR consultants give open attitudes to long leave a thumbs up

Robyn Young, owner of RYHR, which provides HR consultancy services to Kiwi companies, says she wholeheartedly supports the idea of allowing staff to go and do a mini-OE with the idea that they’ll return to their jobs. “I definitely support it. It was me once upon a time,” she says.

The HR expert thinks there’s less incentive for young Kiwis to go and do their OE in the UK, and work there for a number of years despite working there being popular in the past.

“If people want to go work in the UK, it’s not in great shape at the moment. I was there in 2007 for the Global Financial Crisis and it was very ugly. I’m not sure the job market over there is that attractive. If people are thinking about travelling, why not say to them, go and have an extended holiday, which scratches the travel itch,” says Robyn. She sees how this could work for a range of sectors from professional firms, the trades, manufacturing, hospitality, logistics and Research & Development.

Managers and business owners have to think more creatively around this type of thing. It’s better than losing a great employee,” she says.

Weigh up the pros and cons, she advises. “Do you really want to lose them? Especially in a tight recruitment market. I’d encourage employers to give new ideas a go. I’ve seen arrangements where travel has been turned into a working holiday where someone works one day a week overseas.

“Some employers won’t do it, (and that’s their prerogative) but I think it’s a really good opportunity to entice staff to return after they travel,” says Robyn.

Hive director and founder, Ainsley Benefield, who helps employers with HR and people management issues, agrees that the concept of the OE has changed, and says companies have to set things up so that their staff know a period of leave overseas is possible.

It’s a retention strategy and it’s all part of a wider discussion, she notes.

“I think it goes back to building trust and having really good career conversations from day one,” she says. From the first day on the job, the employer can ask, ‘do you want to go overseas? If you tell me, we can help you.’ It’s about having that trust and an open conversation. It might be that they just go for three months, she says.

Hive, which works with a number of tech companies, says these employers might go more for some kind of flexible working rather than full time off. It could be an arrangement where the staff member goes off on their travels but they’re open to a call if the company has a question.

“It has to work for both sides,” adds Ainsley. At the same time, the employee should flag their intention early.

The approach from larger firms on allowing staff leave

Of course, the big professional consultancy firms have been giving their staff a chance to work and travel for years.

Deloitte NZ’s Head of People and Performance, Sally Smyth, says Deloitte NZ has a career break policy which enables eligible people to take up to two years out with the possibility to extend the break for a further year.

“Some people do use that to complete their OE with the certainty of coming back to work and we’ve had that policy in place for a number of years.”

The consultancy firm is pretty good at accommodating shorter term OEs, though people usually want to go for longer, says Sally.

This year, Deloitte NZ has also launched a policy offering people the opportunity to travel and work up to eight weeks in certain countries.

“The idea with this was to enable people from overseas to return home to see family that they’d been separated from and potentially stay for longer if they could do some work while they’re there,” she says.

The upsides for employers with international businesses

Big Waikato-based employer Gallagher, with an international presence, meanwhile, was positive about allowing staff to travel and not lose their place with the company. That overseas travel just makes them a more interesting employee, is the attitude.

Says a spokesperson: “We’re a global company with a huge amount of overseas experience across our 1300-strong worldwide team, so we see immense value in the international perspective that comes with actual lived experience in other markets.”

“As a leading employer with 10 key office locations around the world, we’re continuing to grow into how we support our existing and new talent to gain that on-the-ground understanding, and currently look at those opportunities or requests on a case by case basis, especially dependent on role and team context.”

Multidisciplinary architecture firm, Studio Pacific, is on the same page. The architecture practice, with 109 staff, has always allowed employees to take long blocks of leave without pay because they tend to really benefit from the inspiration, says Paula MacDonald, Senior Principal, People and Practice.

“It’s an acknowledgment that New Zealand is a long way from other places,” she comments.

“We start talking about it before someone has come on board, as part of the employee recruitment, we’ll say we have opportunities for leave without pay. If you’re thinking that you want to go away in March 2024, let us know because projects tend to be spread over a long time. The conversation starts really early, says Paula.

Some employees choose to resign but a number come back after time away. “We call them our boomerang employees. We have a number of them, and one’s back for the third time,” says Paula.

“I think that in all organisations, if you look after your staff, they’ll look after you,” she adds.

Do mini-OEs work for smaller businesses?

It may seem that SMEs are harder pushed to allow staff to go off for months at a time but many are still taking the plunge.

Leigh Harris, partner at Christchurch PR company, Convergence, says the company has been open to flexible working for a good 15 years, it’s part of its DNA.

In the last year, the agency has had a staff member take nine weeks’ leave, another three weeks over their usual annual holiday and another is planning to go away for six to seven weeks mid next year.

The company has a rule that only a maximum of two senior consultants or partners are allowed to be on extended leave at the same time.

The only downside is that there are periods where there aren’t that many bodies in the office, particularly when people are on extended leave and others have decided to work from home on particular days.

But the company has moved recently to a Regus serviced office space which means there’s still a generalised buzz in the surrounding environment, says Leigh.

Generally, when staff go away, Convergence has found that people tend to keep on top of their emails so it’s easier to get back in the groove when they return but they don’t do any actual work.

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