When someone takes an extended period of time off work, be it for maternity, paternity, bereavement, care, sebatical or study reasons, it can be very challenging getting back to the role they left behind. So many moving parts make a return to work complex. The company you’re returning to and the people you work with are not the same as those you left behind. They may look the same but everybody has changed, every thing has changed and so has the person coming back.
I have experienced two such extended periods of leave with two very different returns. Both times I felt myself to have changed considerably but perhaps didn’t anticipate how significant the accumulated minor changes to the work and people there would be. I had been entirely absorbed elsewhere without much interaction or involvement with the status of work I had left behind. When I returned the first time I fought hard to come back as I was. Subconsciously and consciously almost apologising for the absence and the changes it had brought me by striving to be the person who left, by resisting the new aspects of me that had grown, and trying to squeeze myself back in, like jamming myself into a newly-washed pair of unforgiving jeans the day after Christmas.
It worked, to a degree but I think I did myself and my newfound strengths a disservice by avoiding them. I worked hard to regain what I felt I had lost of myself without being able to appreciate the many wonders I had gained. An incredibly valuable asset I had, which could have brought many benefits to the company had it been fully utilised, was a unique objective perspective. I could be at once familiar with the company and its story but with a removed perspective that allowed for a wider view and insight into the machinations of its operation. I could see relationships and dynamics internally and externally with clearer view and could give valuable insight into where we were heading without the detailed knowledge of our current status to distract and persuade me.
The second return I was less inclined to adapt back. I found the new aspects of myself and was not willing to give them up so easily this time. I felt stronger, more confident and less apologetic for being away. I valued the time I’d had and the way it had changed me. Conversely, I’d had a harder leave time. I’d struggled more and so learned more about myself and it had brought me greater levels of self-awareness and self-respect. It was a much harder transition back the second time. The company had also grown and changed in new ways and it was quite extraordinary for me to recognise this and see how it only takes stepping away for a few months for the entire landscape to shift. It’s disorientating to find oneself in this new and foreign land, changed and unsure of the environment you now find yourself. Like Gulliver in Lilliput I felt conspicuous and vulnerable all at once.
We often take for granted these leaves of absence that most people will take one time or another in their career, but as organisations it is vital we do our best to ensure smooth and productive returns to work. With some careful management through the stages there is a much better success rate for both returners and employers. Where the person returning does so with ease and success and the company gains from the insight and new perspectives this experienced, yet fresh and energetic person can bring.
As part of my coaching practice I work with returners within business to achieve the best transitions in and out of the business. By consulting with the employee and employer and various stages along the journey both parties can get what they need. I consult with the person taking leave before they go (where possible), to get to know them, their role, what absence will mean for them, ensure handovers have been effective and expectations on both sides are met. I will then be back in touch with the employer before their expected return to help them manage their return. I offer coaching to bring them a greater sense of confidence and ease when they come back to their role. I also ascertain from their line manger what expectations there are upon return and how quickly they can be achieved. I am available for the first couple of months (and beyond where required) to coach, mediate and enhance communication between the two parties to ensure everyone is getting what they need.
The cost of mismanaged returns are great, in talent retention, employee well-being, morale, team dynamics, company reputation, productivity and financial implications. It pays to work harder at these crucial moments to make work easier & smarter thereafter.