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InterNations Corporate Culture
It’s so refreshing to leave your daily routines behind for a while. Even a short break is enough to reenergize.”
Now, in early September, summer is well and truly over: it’s back to school for the children, back to work for us grown-ups, and the local weather forecast promises pouring rain for the upcoming weekend in Munich. While curating your travel photos for Instagram, you might be tempted to start dreaming about your next vacation: those two weeks you’ve just spent in the Austrian Alps seem far too short in retrospect…
Perhaps you’d rather take a cruise amid thousands of islets in Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay or watch dozens of hot-air balloons rise over the “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia. How about exploring religious history at the International Buddhist Museum in Kandy, Sri Lanka? Or going on a five-day boat ride down the Amazon River?
Taking a Sabbatical: Just a Pipe Dream?
For some of our team members, these dreams have come true — InterNations has provided them with the opportunity to travel the world. Maybe you have other reasons for taking a temporary break from work: family commitments, a time-consuming volunteer project, or a one-year degree course. While German employment law features specific regulations for parents and other family caregivers, there’s no legal entitlement to a general sabbatical.
However, according to a 2017 survey, over one in five employees would be interested in taking sabbatical leave — if only they could. Unfortunately, not all employers in Germany support their plans. Merely 10% of the respondents had actually taken the longed-for career break.
At InterNations, several team members negotiated sabbaticals or shorter breaks on a case-by-case basis over the years. Head of Business Solutions Theresa, for example, embarked on a twelve-month trip around the globe, while Sandra, one of our community engagement specialists, spent six months going from Munich to India in a vintage Volkswagen van. To make things easier for everyone involved, our HR Team eventually introduced a company-wide policy last year.
The Right to Recharge: Two Options at InterNations
Our ReCharge program includes both long and short career breaks. The Vacation Plus option offers between two and four weeks of unpaid leave, whereas taking the Sabbatical option means six to twelve months off from work. (Shorter sabbaticals are possible, but still need to be discussed individually.) The program covers all full-time and part-time employees who have worked at InterNations for at least two or three years.
Though our HR Team has streamlined the process significantly, we can’t do completely without paperwork: You need to apply at least three to six months in advance, and your supervisor needs to approve your plans. Yes, they can be refused, although we try our best to make it work for everyone.
Just talk to your co-workers before booking a no-refunds flight to Inner Mongolia! If you align with other people’s vacation plans or parental leave, keeping important deadlines and periods with an above-average workload in mind, it’s easier to cover for you while you’re out there, exploring.
Unfortunately, not everybody has the same freedom as Anastasiya, our learning & development business partner. “It was surprisingly easy to plan my sabbatical,” she says about her eight-week trip to Sri Lanka, Singapore, and New Zealand in early 2019.
“I’m a one-person team of my own, and I have a lot of leeway when it comes to defining which projects I’ll be working on in the next six or twelve months. As my job is very much project-based, I have very few operative tasks. We didn’t even have to find anybody to cover for me.”
The “Savings Phase”: A Streamlined Arrangement
What else is there to keep in mind? There’s a so-called “savings phase” before your sabbatical. For example, if you’d like to take off half a year, starting from 1 July 2020, you’ll be working regular hours at 50% of your pay from 1 January onwards. You’ll receive the other half of your salary while on leave. This arrangement offers a huge advantage with regard to social security and health insurance: you’ll keep your existing coverage without needing to sort out any administrative issues.
“Back in 2016, I just took unpaid leave for six months,” Sandra remembers. “I stopped paying my social security contributions and put my German health insurance plan on hold, monthly payments included. But I had to persuade my healthcare provider to send me an agreement in writing that I could resume my policy as soon as I was back.”
With the new ReCharge program, she’d avoid this sort of bureaucratic hassle. Of course, Theresa adds, if you’d like to spend your sabbatical abroad, “you need to take out international travel insurance anyway. That’s still on you to figure out. But if you’re planning to leave Germany for less than a year, it’s not particularly complicated. It’s pretty affordable, too, as long as you don’t go to Canada or the US.”
To Do, Doing, Done: Preparing for Your Adventure
When it comes to preparing for your great adventure, there’s no need to take it quite as far as Sandra did: “My boyfriend — now husband — works as a project manager in the insurance industry. Therefore, we had those detailed, Agile-style to-do lists all over our living room. There were lots of post-its involved. But it turned out to be very helpful. We always knew who had to take care of what and when.”
The biggest step is probably deciding what to do with your apartment. If you rent, you need your landlord’s permission for subletting it. That way, you’ll reduce your housing budget to zero while traveling, and you won’t face the stressful real-estate market upon return. Even your furniture can stay where it is, and you merely need somewhere to store your personal belongings.
If you deal with all practical issues, such as visa applications, before leaving, you can kick back and relax as soon as your plane takes off: just enjoy your experience to the fullest! Even during the trip of a lifetime, however, life isn’t always a walk in the park.
“Let’s face it: Traveling, especially hiking and backpacking for months, can be exhausting,” Theresa reflects. “Often, you’ll simply be tired and sore. You spend a lot of time queuing and waiting. You’ll promptly catch a bug and be confined to your hostel room for a couple of days.” Nevertheless, you will make memories to last forever.
Patagonia or Bavaria? Personal Highlights from Our Team
“I can’t decide what the highlights of our trip were — not even the top 3 or top 5,” Theresa says. “But our detour to Patagonia definitely stands out. It’s one of my favorite places in the whole world. I loved its national parks: the scenery seems so vast and endless. It’s truly awe-inspiring and makes you feel very small.”
Unlike Theresa’s trek through the isolated wilderness, some of Anastasiya’s happiest memories from her sabbatical involve socializing with another InterNations team member. New Zealander Rachel from our Corporate Partnerships Team happened to be visiting her hometown of Blenheim, and she took the time to give Anastasiya and her husband a tour of the area.
“I’d always wanted to go to New Zealand,” Anastasiya says. “I’d read so many great things about it as a tourist destination, especially about its nature and wildlife. I was really lucky that Rachel was on vacation at the same time. She’s from New Zealand’s most famous wine-growing region, so we went on a bike tour to visit various local wineries together.”
“On the following day, Rachel showed us around Lochmara Bay in the Malborough Sounds. She calls it her ‘happy place’, and I can see why. The sounds have a kind of rugged beauty that reminded me of Norwegian fjords, and there was also an interesting wildlife recovery center, where they breed native parakeets and where you could hand-feed those cute little pigs.”
“When you set out on such a big trip, you’re sometimes afraid at first. You don’t know what’s waiting for you round the next bend in the road,” Sandra recalls. “But everyone we met on our journey was incredibly nice, and they couldn’t have been any more helpful.”
While planning the itinerary, they found Glaarkshouse, a blog run by a couple of seasoned travelers who’d gone on a three-year trip through Europe and Asia in a Unimog. The bloggers agreed to meet up with Sandra and her boyfriend in Munich, providing useful travel advice.
“It’s not just this community of travel bloggers that are so wonderfully supportive,” she explains. “We encountered friendly people just about everywhere we went. Especially in Iran, the hospitality was amazing.”
When they ran into trouble with their car, a mechanic in Shiraz fixed the clutch for free; a talented shop owner from Yazd painted the van with a camel caravan as a creative souvenir — the painting’s still there today; they kept having to turn down invitations for tea, dinner, or overnight stays. “If we’d accepted them all, we’d never have made it out of the country before our visas ran out!”
Miriam from the Community Engagement Team was also pleasantly surprised by her first solo vacation: During her Vacation Plus in spring 2019, she spent four weeks backpacking in Vietnam. “I’d set myself a personal challenge to do something out of the ordinary. It was also the first time I’d ever been to Southeast Asia. I just booked a return flight and my first hostel in Ho Chi Minh City, but nothing else. I wanted it to be spontaneous.”
Then she nearly got cold feet. “I fell sick a couple of weeks before I left — partly because I was stressing out about my vacation plans. But everything turned out fine. I’d really recommend Vietnam for female solo travelers. You meet a lot of other backpackers, including lots of women, and I always felt very safe. And public transportation in Vietnam is so easy and convenient to get around.”
But Miriam didn’t just use her short career break to sip iced coffee in historical Hoi An or to soak up the vibrant urban atmosphere in Hanoi: She also discovered the benefits of having some time to herself at home. Combining her Vacation Plus with three weeks of regular leave, she seized the opportunity to visit her grandma, to spend more time with friends, and to get to know Munich a little better.
“I moved here for work in September 2015, and I often feel I don’t know the city as well I’d like to. If you don’t need to go to work, you get to see Munich and its countryside from a different perspective. It feels much more relaxed if you go hiking or have breakfast at a cozy café on a working day.” And with Munich being such an international city, you don’t have to go far for a bit of exotic flair: Miriam tasted Icelandic waffles at Café Bla and Latin American snacks at Guatemuc, both venues in her very own neighborhood.
A Smooth Landing: Returning to Work after Your Break
What happens after your time off depends both on the duration of your break and your personal situation. If you opt for the Vacation Plus, like Miriam, you will take up right where you left. This is guaranteed in the agreement drawn up before you go.
If you are planning a longer break, however, we can’t make the same kind of promise. You will have a job at InterNations once you come back, with the same working hours, the same annual leave, and the same salary, but it might not be exactly the same position. Sandra, for example, did return to her usual tasks in the Community Engagement Team, but she was assigned a new portfolio of InterNations Communities to look after.
Theresa, on the other hand, knew right from the start she wouldn’t be coming back to her previous responsibilities as the Head of the Community Experience Department: “It would have been far too difficult to recruit a temporary cover for this type of management position, so we decided against it right away,” she explains. “But with an apartment and an employer to come home to, it was still a safe framework to try something new.”
Leaving Your Comfort Zone: Why Everyone Benefits
Though you might have to save up for your career break, it’ll be a different kind of rewarding. “It’s an extremely enriching experience,” Theresa stresses, “both personally and professionally. You learn a lot about flexibility, about dealing with all sorts of situations, about being organized and staying on top of things. You need to be open to new experiences and become adept at intercultural communication. In short, you’ll leave your comfort zone.”
Miriam would certainly agree with the latter. “During my first solo trip, I didn’t only find out how much I do enjoy being on my own, but I also learned how to approach people and strike up a rapport. I don’t think I’m bad at this per se, but neither am I usually the kind of person who just starts talking to strangers. It was really great to see how others reacted to my smiling, happy, and carefree self. If you’re having a great time, people will automatically treat you in a much nicer way, and that’s something I’d like to keep up in my everyday life.”
“It’s so refreshing to leave your daily routines behind for a while,” says Anastasiya. “I’m very grateful that InterNations gave me the opportunity to do so. Even a short break is enough to reenergize.” In the end, the entire team will benefit from this boost of motivation. At InterNations, you won’t have to decide between your job and other commitments, between your career and your dreams.
Image credits: iStockphoto/private
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