Sabbatical: Structured to Unplug, Connect, Revitalize

A sabbatical, often known as a period of leave granted to academics or clergy members, offers an opportunity for those in demanding professions to rest or recharge. The concept of a sabbatical has expanded a bit in recent years to accommodate our evolving work patterns. People change jobs more frequently than in past eras; they’re also less likely to be working a job with a traditional 9-to-5 Monday to Friday schedule, and they’re more plugged in than ever. Our level of connectivity creates unprecedented flexibility, but it also erodes the boundaries that allow us to disconnect and unwind. The sabbatical is more important than ever, for those in a variety of professions, and taking one might be more feasible than you’d imagine.

Amble, a program which organizes one-month sabbaticals for creative professionals, links nonprofits with people who can contribute skills in support of the host organization’s goals and mission. Recent sabbaticals have been hosted by Yosemite Conservancy and Mariposa Arts Council at Yosemite National Park, and by Sierra Foothill Conservancy in the Sierra Foothills. I participated in Amble’s latest sabbatical in Glacier National Park, held in partnership with Glacier National Park Conservancy and Parks Project.

As Amble envisions it, the sabbatical is not “doing nothing,” but instead encourages a dramatic shift in mindset. My cohort of ten creative professionals worked roughly 2 ½ days a week on our selected projects. Some chose to work as many hours as in their typical full-time work week, but nonetheless felt re-energized due to a change in focus. All of us were immersed in a complete change of scenery in the spectacular Glacier landscape. The reasons each of our team members embarked on the sabbatical were as varied as our projects. Some were looking for a physical break and a period of recharging. Some were transitioning between careers, jobs, or life stages, and took advantage of the opportunity to pause and reflect in between. Others were seeking to expand our network of relationships across disciplines and to expand our perspectives. The projects ranged from photography to communication strategies to architecture.

The logistics were not difficult, but creating space for a true sabbatical required a bit of preparation and discipline. Communication was critical, starting with early-stage discussions with company leadership. Leaving for five weeks required a lot of trust on all sides. My team and my clients trusted me to put a structure in place to keep projects moving on schedule, and I trusted others to make decisions on issues as they arose. That trust was well founded, and delegating responsibilities to my team allowed others to develop leadership abilities in my absence. Truly unplugging sounded challenging, but I found it to be easier than expected because I am surrounded by a talented team of individuals who were each willing to support me in this time. Clients and colleagues were extremely respectful of my structured time away and worked together to resolve any issues that arose.  It took at least three weeks to feel fully unplugged, so that the second half allowed a true mental break.

Everyone came to Amble with different goals and outcomes in mind. Creating art, creating products creating relationships, or even just learning- all participants were focused on different things, but we all benefitted from being around people in parallel roles in different industries. In addition to my work in facilities assessment, visioning, and concept design for central office facilities, I was able to do a substantial amount of reading, hiking, and reflecting. As an architect I am trained to be a problem seeker as well as a problem solver, and it was rewarding to use architectural strategies to help develop ideas for the Conservancy from a different perspective.

Having returned to the office where things move at a fast pace and daily responsibilities guide my schedule, I’ve managed to bring a few lessons from Amble back to my daily life. I’m still reflecting on what I learned, particularly the impact that purpose-driven work offers for people who immerse themselves in it. Given a clear end point and time frame, most participants went well above and beyond their stated commitments out of the joy of self-directed work coupled with alignment with an important cause. The creative flow is also impeded or encouraged by our habits; often, problems from Tuesday turn into solutions on a Wednesday hike, and the process of allowing our minds to expand and contract leads to surprising productivity on Thursday. Work with no fixed schedule proved to be empowering and inspiring, and the autonomy of a group of creative people produced significant measurable results that exceeded expectations across the board.

One important piece of advice: if the opportunity arises to take a sabbatical, don’t be tempted to put it off and wait for a less busy time. Our schedules tend to get more complex and our responsibilities tend to continue to grow; next year will probably be just as busy, if not busier. Take the time to recharge when you can, and trust that (with careful planning and communication) the world will keep spinning while you’re out of pocket gaining a new perspective.

About Megan

Associate Principal Megan Bowles serves as Operations and Finance Manager in LS3P’s Raleigh office focusing on continuous improvement processes including professional development opportunities, project delivery, and market sector growth. A magna cum laude graduate of NC State University’s College of Design, Megan also leads the office’s corporate commercial team and works extensively in the faith-based practice area. Her portfolio includes over one million SF of core and shell construction, and over 500,000 SF of large interior upfits. Megan is currently serving on the AIA NC Board as Director of Membership, as an ACE Mentor and Board Member, and as Advisor for AIA Triangle’s Leadership Forum.