Catherine Kift 10 January 2018

Returning to work

Returning to the workforce after a career break can be a daunting experience, especially for those at a senior level. That is why it is crucial that employers invest time and resources into supporting those looking to do so. Without the right systems and structures in place, local government organisations risk missing out on a valuable talent pool.

Towards the end of last year, the Government Equalities Office launched the Career Break Returner programmes – schemes designed to help employers support people back into the workplace, following substantial time off. The schemes address on-going concerns that organisations are falling short here, failing make the ‘return to work’ process a manageable one.

Returners might have taken time out for childcare, study, travel or military service, or they may even have previously retired. According to newly published research by Ageing & Society, around 25% of retirees now return to work, with about half doing so within five years of retirement.

At a time when local government is under increasing strain to deliver new service models and adopt innovative partnership approaches, investing time and resources into returners like these, with known skills and capability, can pay dividends. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to filling senior leadership roles, where talent shortage can be paralysing.

So, with this in mind, what can local government employers do differently? What support mechanisms can they put in place and how can they ensure they get the best out of returners?

Tailoring programmes

Carefully structured programmes, dedicated to re-integrating those who have been on a career break, can make a real difference. Increasingly, employees take time out of the workforce for wide-ranging reasons, and tailoring return processes to suit the needs of different groups can help ensure that their experience is as positive as possible.

There are a number of tools employers can use to support and retain returners. Flexible and agile working practices are a great place to start. Parents or carers often need greater flexibility built into their contracts, at least in the short-term. Granting permission to work from home, or alter start and finish times on set days can make a huge difference. This can be on-going or may just apply to a transition period, depending on the role. Parents often worry that their need for more time off renders them less attractive to potential employers, so communicating a willingness to accommodate their needs as far as possible is important.

Setting up employee support networks and networking sessions can also help. It is important for returners to build relationships with colleagues as quickly as possible, and also to find co-workers who might be in a similar situation to themselves.

This can be especially valuable where the employee is returning to work after a particularly unique experience – such as military service. Groups are often set up for ex-service personnel within the same organisation, for example. Helping returners establish a support system is crucial.

Effective training programmes are another important element in the ‘return to work’ process. Returners need to be given the resources necessary to get up to speed quickly, to ensure they can perform to the best of their ability. Talking to returners about where there might be gaps in their know-how and running tailored upskill sessions is critical. Helping individuals to think about how any skills gained whilst on their career break might be transferrable can also be helpful. Returners often fail to see the value in what they have done whilst away from the workforce. Working with them to identify this, and the new perspectives they bring, can have a positive impact on performance.

All of these tools are of particular importance when it comes to more senior-level leadership roles.

The challenges career break returners face are often amplified higher up within an organisation, so specialised and tailored support here is key. Ensuring a CEO, CFO or any other board-level returner has the chance to build up a support network and upskill quickly is crucial. Addressing the issue of female representation and diversity on boards generally means that this is particularly pressing. Ensuring women who have taken time out are not side-lined when it comes to top leadership posts, and that they are given the necessary resources to do them well, is essential.

Interim positions – an effective returner strategy?

Taking up interim positions can be a useful strategy for transitioning back into the workforce. The roles provide a chance for more senior professionals to ‘test the waters’ and see how employment fits in with their lifestyle and skillset following a break.

Interim positions can often be timed around other commitments – some parents opt to align roles with school term time, for example. There also tends to be more scope to negotiate flexible or agile working terms than in permanent roles, such as four day working weeks.

There are also benefits for employers. The recruitment process for interims is usually very quick and inexpensive, meaning valuable time and resources are not wasted. Hires can be made to meet short-term business objectives or support particular projects, so both parties see value.

Some organisations are also now offering ‘returnships’ - short term internship- like placements for experienced professionals. These carry similar benefits to interim positions, although with slightly less pressure attached. Pay will often be lower but again they allow returners to experiment with fulltime work after time off, and can provide a quick way to update skills and knowledge. They also present a valuable networking opportunity and can lead to permanent posts.

Addressing the gender pay gap – a timely issue

Effective strategies for re-integrating women back into the workforce is essential from a gender pay gap perspective. In 2018, all organisations will have to publish statistics on disparities between male and female pay. Ensuring measures are in place to eliminate inequalities is therefore crucial. Return to work schemes have an important role to play in this regard.

Organisations need the structures in place to support women returning from maternity leave or childcare. The right culture – which fosters respect and understanding for women coming back into the workforce –needs to be instilled from the top. Promoting an awareness of the value women bring, as well as the barriers they face, is key.

Final thoughts

If local government organisations are to attract and retain the best talent, they need to assist and accommodate those looking to re-enter the workforce after a break. Often these candidates bring valuable experience and fresh perspectives, and excluding them from selection processes could mean missing out on the best talent. However, organisations need to think carefully about how they can ensure a smooth transition, and invest the resources necessary to make the return to work process a success.

Catherine Kift is partner at GatenbySanderson

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