Returner programmes in a post-pandemic environment

Getting back to work after a career break is likely to become more common as our working lives lengthen. So how can employers help people ease back in and how has the pandemic affected that? Benedetta Doro reports.

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Taking a career break is not unusual whether it is due to caring responsibilities, travel or simply to recharge from the bustle of a working environment. Yet, despite the number of people who choose to do so, many still feel alone when they attempt to come back to work.

Often, returners might feel anxious about returning to work because they fear their skills are not as sharp. They may also feel that they have lost confidence after years out of the workplace doing something different.

These feelings mixed with a lack of new flexible jobs might prevent them from applying for roles that suit their skills, if they decide to apply for any jobs.
Also, they might face biases from hiring managers who might prefer someone less skilled over applicants who have not worked for more than six months. These biases can lead more people to fear taking a career break, with 70% of women in business feeling anxious about it.

Returner programmes have been set up by companies in order to overcome these problems and welcome returners back into the working environment as well as break the stigma around career breaks.

Indeed, three out of four women who have taken a career break due to caring responsibilities want to return to work, and these programmes can facilitate the process. Lately, more companies have realised the benefits of hiring returners and more are offering specialised programmes, although more are needed.

Coaching and consulting companies like Women Returners partner with businesses to provide programmes and networking opportunities for those who wish to return after a career break.

Women Returners was set up in recognition of the number of women who have taken career breaks due to childcare issues, but more and more men are taking part in the programmes and, as the retirement age increases, it is expected that career breaks will become more common across the board.

The impact of Covid-19

The pandemic has taken its toll on these programmes, with some companies struggling to justify them after cutting staff or amid ongoing uncertainty. Several paused them temporarily, but there has been a lot of activity in the last months as restrictions have been lifted and amid a skills shortage.
There have also been businesses which shifted to online programmes like UBS and Capgemini. Some companies had already providing online coaching before the pandemic, but they were mainly in tech-savvy sectors. To an extent, the restrictions imposed by Covid-19 have facilitated the shift to online for many more businesses, which has allowed people in more dispersed locations to attend these programmes.

Some returners who opted to attend the online programmes last year and started to work from home. This allowed them to have greater flexibility than that often allowed in the workplace. However, the pandemic has forced others to wait for the situation to stabilise again before planning on when to return to work.

Returner programmes post pandemic

More companies are now looking to launch or re-launch their returner programmes, whether they are conducted online or face to face. In these uncertain times, Julianne Miles, CEO and co-founder of Women Returners, stresses the importance of offering structured support to returnees, assigning them a mentor and/or buddy and delivering training to hiring managers so that they can better support returners and recognise some of the issues they may be facing. For instance, in an interview situation it is advised that, instead of focusing on a specific set of skills and recent experience, that hiring managers talk about the skills they have, including those acquired outside a working environment.
In general, confidence is one of the main obstacles returners face, although it is mainly a temporary issue and having a buddy or mentor, particularly a successful returner, helps to attract skilled workers and ensure they stay. Many employers also encourage specific cohorts of returners to form alumni groups and keep in touch, helping to support each other’s route back into work. Many programmes include introductions to senior managers across the company as well as other returners in the company to give returners an overview of latest developments in the business and in the sector.

For employers looking to attract returners, experts say it is important to offer work that is more or less at the same level as when they left and a competitive salary. They advise targeting the kind of channels that returners might look at and offering support both before and during the assessment process, explaining what will happen and giving people a chance to talk about their fears. In addition to training hiring and line managers and promoting the business benefits of returners through visible role models and a focus on the talent they bring, they also counsel that checking in regularly on the returner is vital as is providing feedback. Evaluating the programme regularly, focusing on career pathways for returners and sharing success stories both internally and externally, particularly to a company’s supply chain, are also vital.

There are different programmes available for returners. For example, some returner initiatives are designed to help returners figure out if they are ready to return to work and do not necessarily result in a contract with the employer running them.

Returnship programmes are typically between three to six months and at times last up to a year. They are paid at a professional level and are designed for returners to gain the right level of experience and often lead to a permanent position in the organisation. For employers, they offer a trial period where they can see what the returner has to offer.

Other employers offer supported hiring which means that returners are hired following the standard recruitment process with additional coaching and mentoring. This is a particularly useful option for SMEs and make it easier to normalise the hiring of returners.

In some sectors, additional training may be required to get people up to speed with developments while they have been away.

It is important to remember that some returners may be less likely to apply if there is no flexible working available. This may involve part-time work, working from home or flexi hours so that people can balance their job with their caring or other responsibilities. It is important, say experts, to design in some flexibility from the offset.

Returner programmes not only help experienced workers get back to jobs which utilise their skills, but they also help to change the narrative about those who take a career break, making it easier for returners generally to get back to work at the level their experience merits. They also provide younger workers with a positive example in case they too need to take a break later on in their career, something that is likely to become more common as people retire later.

*More information on best practice can be found here. WM People is holding an employer roundtable on best practice for returners on 21st September. Contact [email protected] if you are interested in taking part or receiving the white paper on the event.

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