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Returning to Work – How organisations should not lose great talent through lack of support and flexibility

By Suzanne Maxted2 January 20205 min read

Earlier this year I attended the Women in Digital conference in Leeds and wanted to share what I had heard about returning and identifying talent back into work, based on the conference theme. Since then I’ve explored and worked with schemes that help people into work. The most inspiring talk at the conference was a by a senior director of the Department of Work and Pensions. Her comments on needing to find her place again and a sense of belonging were insightful.

This lady talked about the importance of warmth towards her in finding her place at work again when she returned to work after an extended break for cancer treatment. Her story was a tear jerker. She described the impact of her diagnosis on her family of husband and toddler son. When she returned to work, she felt unrecognised, bewildered and unbelonging. The ‘chemo fog’ made her brain fuzzy which made it hard to find the right words in conversation. This resulted in a lack of confidence and she stopped talking! One day, she attended a conference and was feeling that she simply must leave, when a woman came up to her and hugged her; this show of warmth gave her the strength to stay that day and beyond. Feeling like she had no place was frightening and one day she broke down and sobbed in front of a colleague. That led to an action plan that stated what she needed, that reinforced the message that needing help is not a weakness and that actively rebuilt her network, all while wearing her bandana. This plan included hugging because that is something that is important to her, that allows for warmth in the workplace. She seeks out warm people with whom to network and encourages people to speak up and raise issues. During her recovery period, colleagues made adjustments to accommodate her, and also to lift her. She later found that those people felt blessed that she had trusted them to help her.

Maternity leave was not something I could chose to do when I had my children, but I was fortunate to be able to work from home after two weeks leave per child, at a time when this was highly unusual. It was a very difficult time because of an unsupportive husband who refused to work but what made it all bearable was the support of the women and men around me at work, not all of them parents. This period is fuzzy in my memory due to exhaustion, but I do remember lots of laughter with my colleagues and them cooing over my babies and not being phased by me bringing them on site much of the time, even during a visit from a member of the Royal family! Well, it was Johnson and Johnson the baby company after all. So in effect, my colleagues who remain friends today, were informally running a return-to-work programme, full of warmth, for my sole benefit (they knew about the home life). What’s really interesting now are the return to work programmes on offer. I will highlight three that are particularly interesting.

The STEM Returners project states that it is a programme to help employers recruit, develop and retain the best available talent, and to enable highly qualified and experienced candidates to re-start their career after any sort of career break. It also states that the key barrier of people returning to STEM after a career break is the perception of recruiters and hiring managers, that a CV gap automatically equates to a deterioration of skills. This programme targets wasted talent (as opposed to helping existing staff to return although it could be applied here). Imagining a digital equivalent, I anticipate whole hosts of experienced professionals who want to change direction, for example to become more creative, perhaps in a service design career. I liken this programme to a mini apprenticeship. It is paid and involves learning and shadowing on company time. The company benefits from people who are already very experienced in fields that may or may not be related and who have picked up very useful skills in their absence from paid work, such as chairing the school board.

Secondly, through Methods’ partnership, Digisheds provides free training by educators and industry professionals for young people and for not-so-young returners, for “specific in-demand job roles needing to be filled now and in the future.”

Finally, as employers, the package of benefits for returners is really important. Some companies offer buy-back school holiday leave days so that parents can limit child care costs and time away from children. I must have spent a good $150,000 on childcare; that’s an extreme case as by that time there was only one parent in the game, but I mention it because childcare is a big factor in whether or not a couple decide to both work. This programme works by booking leave in advance thereby spreading the cost i.e. lower wage, over the year. Working from home is a benefit I am so very grateful for as, put simply, it makes life possible. I organise my work so that on those days I can luxuriate in the silence and THINK at last, for instance, to write this or to draw a nitty gritty piece of data architecture. I can sit and concentrate in a quagmire of cats. In the kitchen, there are NEVER enough leftovers for 6-foot teenagers so providing a new dinner every day is a must. Working from home means we can eat, much of the time, according to my definition of healthy instead of theirs – pot noodles and pizza, coloured objects made of sugar. On my way to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, I move through the house like a human vacuum subconsciously sucking up discarded socks from the floor, mandarin skins and shiny marketing disguised as ‘food’ packets. At lunchtime, I hang out to dry the wet partners, washed overnight, of the assorted lone socks I just removed from the floor. I return to a Skype meeting fully recharged, safe in the knowledge that my evening will be free to chat and laugh over dinner with my beautiful funny clever creatures. And that I’ve done a really good day’s work for the world and for my family without burning out from travel and endless face-to-face meetings (sapping an introvert’s energy). A recent survey suggests that 74% of people would jump for a job with working remotely as a benefit and if we want the best talent to return to work, to us, it’s a no brainer.

I believe it’s an important moral good for employers and people like us to gently encourage and support those most tentative, but willing, to explore a new field of work or to simply return, by sharing ideas about how to do that best. Your thoughts? Via email below, by return, please.

Please feel free to get in touch if you have any thoughts or comments: suzanne.maxted@methods.co.uk.