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If you’re not familiar with the term “secondment”, you’re not alone. Despite its esoteric vibe, the concept is easy to understand. A secondment (sometimes referred to as a “job rotation”) is a chance to temporarily work on a different team within your organization, or in some cases, for a different organization entirely. Think of secondments as the on-the-job equivalent of exchange student programs. And just like exchange programs, they’re an excellent learning opportunity.

For all you etymology fans out there…

The word “secondment” comes from the Latin secundare by way of the Middle French seconder: “to assist”. Très chic!

Maybe you want to develop a skill that could benefit you and your team. Maybe you’ve started to feel burned out and need a change. Maybe you’ve plateaued in your current role and are looking for a springboard to launch you into the next phase of your career. A secondment could be just the thing. They offer a more intensive learning experience than classroom or online courses, and you get to put your new knowledge to use immediately and continuously. No theory or hypotheticals here – this is real and hands-on.

Atlassian has a long-running secondment program, which has helped scores of team members grow their skills and invigorate their careers without leaving the company. “Secondments are a great opportunity for my team to experience a new functional area in a fast and furious way,” says Raj Sarkar, who leads marketing for Confluence and Trello. In this era of increasingly specialized skillsets and tough competition for the most talented workers, secondments are a win for both employees and employers.

How do secondments work?

There are two types of secondments: internal and external. Internal secondments happen inside a single company, external secondments happen between companies. For purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the internal type.

While statistics on secondments are scarce, anecdotal evidence suggests that formal secondment programs such as Atlassian’s are rare. More often, the secondment is an informal arrangement between two teams, with HR and IT playing a supporting role when it comes to access to systems and temporary relocation to a different office if necessary. Either way, it’s up to you, the secondee, to seek out the opportunity.

The next step is to convince your manager and the manager of your target team that this is a good investment. Start by having a conversation with your manager – if you have regular 1-on-1 meetings with them, that’s a great forum – and be prepared to follow up with a written proposal. Explain your reasons for wanting a secondment in terms that will resonate with them: progressing toward your career goals, filling a skill gap on the team, exploring other aspects of the business, etc. A good manager will recognize why all those things are valuable to the company as well, but it doesn’t hurt to call out a few company-level benefits as well. (More on that below!)

If they’re open to the idea, approach the manager of the team you’d like to join. Ideally, you’ll partner with your manager on this step so all three of you are active participants in the conversation and are working with the same information.

Secondment FAQ:

How long does it take to arrange a secondment?

The approval process for secondments differs from company to company, but anticipate a few weeks (if not a month or more) to get everything sorted.

How long does a secondment typically last?

Again, it varies. If you have the opportunity to negotiate the duration, aim for a minimum of six months. It’ll take a couple of weeks to get your bearings and start digging into the real learning. Remember that the team you’re seconded to is taking on a considerable amount of overhead in getting you up to speed, so make sure to stick around long enough for it to be worth their while. For reference, secondments at Atlassian usually last 6-12 months.

Will my pay or benefits change while I’m on secondment?

Probably not. There’s a chance your pay will decrease if you’re taking on a role far more junior than your current role (which seems unlikely), but your benefits shouldn’t change as long as you’re staying inside the company.

Are secondments actually worth it?

Besides the boost to your career, a secondment gives you the chance to form new connections with people across the company, understand the business better, and maybe even live in a different part of the world.

But before you go renew your passport, there are trade-offs to consider as well. The role you take on may not be clearly defined, and therefore may not turn out to be what you had in mind. It’s also possible that in your absence, a teammate takes over a part of your role that you love and falls in love with it as well – which can make for an awkward transition when you return. So be sure to mitigate these risks by working with your future team to spec out exactly what you’ll be doing before the secondment begins, and let your home team know about any aspects of your role that will still be important to you when you come back.

It’s a good investment for your employer as well. “It’s a great, low-risk opportunity”, says Raj. “People can build expertise without a long-term commitment. Plus, the seconded employee brings in a different skillset their new team can take advantage of.”

There are a few obvious downsides, such as a temporary hit to productivity during the transition and the administrative overhead involved in setting the whole thing up. But the small loss in efficiency is more than offset by how effective secondments are.

Raj has had members of his team go on secondments and has also absorbed new reports as seconded team members. He recommends considering these six questions when sorting through the pros and cons:

  1. Is there a business need?
  2. Is it beneficial to both teams?
  3. What is the intent of the secondment?
  4. What is the skillset the new team member will learn?
  5. What will the benefit be to the team with the secondment member?
  6. What will happen to the team and the individual after the secondment is over?

Secondments pay dividends in terms of employee engagement as well. After all, what’s more engaging than a chance to develop new skills without the hassle of going to night school? In fact, research we conducted showed that opportunities for continued learning boost a team’s performance and sense of well-being significantly. Not to mention the inherent value in up-skilling employees.

Secondments are also a great tool for employee retention. If a highly-valued team member becomes restless in their role, sending them to another department for a quarter or two gives them a chance to stretch their legs without walking out the door.

What’s it actually like to be on secondment?

The one thing your career development plan is missing

Secondments offer a break from your regularly-scheduled career trajectory. Take for example Shannon Winter, who did a marketing rotation within Atlassian. For Shannon, dipping her toes into an analytics role was a far cry from the product marketing she was used to. 

“If you would’ve told me that I’d be spending my days in SQL by the end of the year,” she says, “I would’ve laughed. But if these past few months have taught me anything, it’s that anyone can learn how to be more data-driven (especially if you’re motivated and have support from people who want you to succeed).”

Immersing yourself in a team with skill sets you want to work on is invaluable to the learning process. It’s a fast-paced method of learning in a practical manner: this isn’t a theoretical continuing education webinar you’re watching in your spare time. You’re actually in the trenches seeing how these skill sets are applied practically!

For Marta Galofre de Alos, her secondment turned into a way for her to expand her horizons within the company. She went from customer support for Trello, a role that is insular within one team, to program management, which is focused on streamlining processes across teams. 

“I not only learned the core skills of program management,” she says, “but also how to navigate change and uncertainty. It was a valuable time to broaden up my connections at Atlassian, too.”

Marta’s secondment turned into a full-time switch to another team. She realized that while she loved customer support, program management proved to be more aligned to her skills and interests. When a position opened up on the program management team, she jumped at the chance.  

This opportunity was a boon to both Marta as well as the company. She says, “I’m now doing the things I’m more naturally good at and passionate about, which is not only positive for me but also for the teams around me and ultimately, Atlassian.”

7 tips for successful secondments

What if my company doesn’t do secondments?

For managers and HR professionals interested in establishing a secondment program, the good folks at Perkbox offer this handy guide. Starting small with ad-hoc secondments and an experimental mindset will help get the kinks worked out before rolling the program out on a larger scale.

For would-be secondees, all is not lost. You might be able to work out an arrangement anyway, especially if you build a compelling business case. (Hint: use Raj’s six questions, above, as your framework.) Stay flexible about the length and structure of the secondment, and be patient if it takes time to reach an agreement that is a win for all parties. Navigating uncharted waters makes for slow going.

It’s critical for the managers of all teams involved, as well as the secondees, to have candid, transparent conversations with each other before, during, and after the secondment to ensure everyone is getting what they need out of it. And don’t panic if it’s all overwhelming at first. You’ll be stepping out of your comfort zone, but as the saying goes, that’s where real life begins.

Secondments: the most powerful job training you’ve never heard of