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Diversity and Inclusion event | Return to Work

Last week we welcomed guests to our ninth Diversity and Inclusion event, this time focussing on Return to Work. Whether we take time out of the workforce ourselves or have partners, spouses or colleagues who have chosen to take time out or have experienced unplanned leave, the chances are the majority have experienced returning to work in some form. With such a high proportion of people taking or witnessing the return to work experience we wanted to explore what works and what we can do better to help those returning to work. Our panel of experts looked to share not only their personal experiences of returning to the workforce but also ideas for best practice.

Reasons for an extended absence from work can vary from the more ‘traditional’ maternity leave through to life changing events, illness or mental health challenges or caregiver demands and our panel for the day reflected this diversity. Hosted by Investigo Senior Director, Angharad Kenward, who took shared parental leave with her husband after the birth of her twins, we also welcomed Dan Robertson from Vercida Consulting to lead discussions, Laura Bouchard, Director of Public Sector at Microsoft, a mother of four who returned to work after maternity and a proud advocate of making family commitments central to your working style. They were joined by Gavin Gleed from Direct Line Group and Martin Sockett, Finance Director at Grafton Merchanting. Gavin took shared parental leave after the birth of his children and Martin took two years out of work following a car accident.

Led by Dan Robinson, from Vercida Consulting the first question to the panel was looking at how important support from your line manager was in managing your return. Our panel and comments from across the room suggested that line manager support is vital when returning to work. Whilst all agreed that policies around best practice for returners should be carried out from the top downwards it was often the attitude of the line manager that had the greatest effect. Experience, from our panel but also from our guests, varied. Martin (Sockett) who was at PwC when he had his accident, described his line managers visiting him both at home and in hospital whilst he was recovering but also encouraging Martin’s colleagues to do the same. The effect of this was twofold, it reassured Martin that he belonged and was included but also served the practical purpose of making people aware of the significant change in his appearance easing the sense of anxiety Martin felt regarding this upon his return. Once back at work his line managers continued to support him ensuring he was placed in teams where he had friends and that clients were made aware of his circumstances prior to him working on their audit.

Dan put it to the panel to consider the one key challenge that they faced, that they hadn't anticipated? Interestingly whilst considerations included the logistics of family life or settling into new hours or structures, the predominant challenge was their own sense of vulnerability. All described that sensation, possibly partially self created they speculated, but definitely present of feeling exposed. Laura spoke about how you can feel ‘out of the loop’, the business, your team, your colleagues have moved on without you, what have you missed and can you catch up? Gavin agreed adding you also have an underlying concern that you might not be able to do the job any more. Martin, was part of a graduate intake at PwC and a lot like college or university, this created a peer year group. Your peer group progressed year on year from trainee to mentor to audit lead and up the ranks. Martin’s return two years after his enforced leave, saw him join a new peer group, instead of being a part of his previous peer group. His sense that the next step on his career was ‘so far away’ came as a challenging surprise. Whilst a certain sense of vulnerability can be expected it was felt that you could negate much of this by managing not only your return but, if your leave is planned, then by structuring the run up to your leave and a mutually workable process for keeping in touch during your absence.

Which lead us onto our next discussion topic: PepsiCo have adopted the principle of 'leaving loudly'. In your experience, what are the sorts of behaviours that work well, when role modelling work / life balance? Laura described Microsoft as having a similar principle for those taking leave, encouraging not only those taking leave to vocalise it but also to encourage open discussions with colleagues, managers and clients regarding anything from planning to how the person wishes to be kept in touch with whilst on leave. Laura herself is keen to be a work/life role model ensuring her diary is open to all and includes family commitments such a school drop off, clubs, sports day etc. She further vocalises her commitments, telling her team why she is leaving a meeting early or starting her day after the school run, she expects her team to do the same and trusts them to do so. Gavin, again is keen to vocalise his family commitments, reiterating that people’s working lives are not their whole lives. Gavin does the school and nursery run before his working day and is happy to explain why a meeting cannot start before the end of his working day. He feels if more of us felt supported to do so by our businesses we’d have a much more empowered workforce.

Questions from the floor asked the panel if there are taboos or barriers that men face when taking time off work, that women don't? In his experience, Gavin was pleased to say on the whole he hadn’t experienced many barriers himself but men taking parental leave are still a minority. Whilst he had had the odd occasion where his level of involvement in his family commitments were questioned he found that an open discussion around his part in shared parental responsibility usually ended positively for both parties. Laura was happy to report that Microsoft are seeing more and more fathers take shared parental leave and the business has time and budget set aside to encourage more of it. Comments from the floor highlighted that whilst large organisations were making great steps towards better return to work policies it was not always the case in the SMEs, suggesting there is still plenty to do. Martin relayed a recent experience, when on leadership training, they were asked to go into the streets and ask college leavers about the expectations they had from their future employers. All of them had expectations surrounding flexible working, work/life balance and family or caring responsibilities which further highlighted the need for businesses to consider what they need to do to become a destination employer for the future workforce.

We closed the session asking the panel if there was one piece of advice that you would offer to returners, what would that be? Martin’s was to take time to return, consider the drain it will have on your physical and mental wellbeing and factor that into your return. See if you can use holiday to stagger your return into the workforce. Also to tell them what you need, as he put it “no one is an expert in you” so communication is key. This was echoed by Gavin who felt that communicating both your expectations of your employer and theirs of you before returning helped returners feel supported. He also advised sharing your experiences of your leave, talk about the positive impact it has had and the sense of fulfilment it has given you. All employers know happy and supported employers are essential for both innovation and a productive workforce so show them best practice by embodying it. Laura advised she benefited from taking the lead in her leave from preparations to set parameters for keeping in touch (KIT) including how you would like to be included and how often. Feeling more in control of your leave and how you’d like to return significantly increases your engagement upon your return.

With a lively debate and an engaged and participative audience it was clear that returning to work and the policies to support it are a work in progress for many businesses. Some are leading the way, demonstrating how a pointed move away from presenteeism and into working patterns tailored to the individual can drive productivity whilst other industries are yet to fully embrace a new way of working. Given the scope returning to work processes gives to businesses to embed not only best practice for returners, but also wider issues surrounding work/life balance moving forward, it looks set to remain an important part of organisations’ D&I agendas.

To read our accompanying Insight: Inclusive Workforce, Return to Work please click here.

If you would like more information on this session or our future DEI events please contact Angharad Kenward,