Developing an effective 'Return to Work' program
Rapid digital transformation, increased automation, globalization and demographic shifts in the workforce have led to an unprecedented impact on the skills landscape. It has become imperative for organizations to focus their talent management efforts on reskilling and skill upgradation and to tap and bring back the talent pool of capable and skilled individuals that are on a break from work and are looking to get back to their careers.
To that end, most organizations today are designing and implementing Return to Work (RTW) programs, enabling professionals to rejoin work after a hiatus by matching their abilities, interests and areas of expertise to the available job roles. Also, RTW programs go a step further to serve as a catalyst for career transition. With intelligent technologies finding an increased uptake across sectors, reskilling and skill upgradation becomes crucial for those seeking to return to work after a long career break.
The objective of an RTW program is grounded in the idea of Diversity and Inclusion (D&I). These programs should be ideally designed to include pretty much anyone that has the right skill set and is looking to rejoin the workforce.
RTW programs, however, do serve as an impetus to women as a significant segment of the workforce. Globally, more women tend to drop out of the workforce than men, owing to structural factors such as age, ethnicity, marital status, family commitments and so on. In this respect, RTW programs are a positive trend, considering that the number of women looking to pick up their careers after a break is encouragingly growing.
Women that are not employed or not employed to their ability represent some of the most highly educated and skilled people that are missing from the workplace, leading to a huge loss of potential. This loss is not only that of the organization, but also to the economy. Programs are designed to ensure that organizations can tap into this vast capital asset potential by providing supportive conditions to women returning to work.
As with everything else, there are challenges that need to be overcome with RTW initiatives. Designing such programs requires immense thought, structure and the ability to follow through on them. Here is a look at five key considerations when designing an RTW program:
Focus on inclusion: Diversity is not to be celebrated on a specific day in the year, rather through giving opportunities to the right candidates to create an inclusive workforce. Inclusion is critical to a program’s success because while diversity is incidental, inclusion is intentional.
Enable the right ecosystem: For an RTW initiative to be successful, a return to work employee and others in the same team must be treated equally regardless of which program umbrella they come under. There are so many thoughts and anxieties when one returns to work. The program must include modules for onboarding, coaching, mentorship, training, networking and hand-holding. Areas must be identified, where this can be done successfully rather than throwing return to work candidates with people in the deep end of the pool. Give people time to settle into their roles; train where necessary; and provide them adequate breathing space with a longer onboarding time to enable them to perform at their full potential.
Position it right: Another crucial factor for the success of such programs is to position them appropriately. The idea is to not make this unfriendly for men and make existing employees feel marginalized. RTW has to be positioned and communicated internally as a talent model, wherein the incoming employees will not be treated any differently and will be an integral part of the team, eventually transitioned to hold equal responsibilities, as per the demands of the role. This ensures that people view the program positively, adding to its sustainability and longevity.
Consider this scenario: a 43-year old woman rejoins her workplace and senses general warmth and understanding. In pockets, she also feels a sense of resentment because she rejoined work under a special program, created to help women find their way back into restarting their careers. The communication to the rest of the divisions was inadequate and a lot of people were unaware of the program, which added to the confusion. When relevant teams were made aware of this program, it addressed everyone’s concerns.
Zero compromise on performance: Hire the right talent based on meritocracy – when this becomes the overarching principle of talent management, a lot of the other things tend to fall in place. This makes it worthwhile for the organizations and makes it easier for women to come back to work and claim their rightful place because they are the right skill match.
Fairness equals sustenance: It is vital that women who rejoin the workforce under these programs are not short changed when it comes to the roles that they are offered and their compensation. If they have the right skill, they should be hired for core roles as well as support roles and there should be no compromise or differentiation in terms of remuneration. Else, this can go on to become a hindrance to their performance, thereby defeating the reason why such programs are enabled in the first place.
Investing in D&I is not a choice for organizations that want to be perceived as companies with integrity and those that bring true value. Return to work programs are fast emerging as a best practice recruitment methodology that supports organizations’ D&I agenda and also provides opportunities to bridge the skill gap. This model, supported by upskilling, reskilling and the right employee retention policies, will help overcome the war for talent in an increasingly competitive job market.