This article was originally published on Forbes.com, under Jeff Miller’s Forbes Human Resources Council column.
When I talk to colleagues who are returning from an extended leave, they all say something similar: "It was great to have the time away, but coming back was a bit of a slap to the face."
Most of us have experienced being away for a week or two and are used to readjusting after a break. But a month-long absence or more — whether it’s a sabbatical, leave for family or medical reasons, or parental leave — means truly separating from the process of work. And it makes returning a major readjustment for employees.
Few companies have formal processes to help ease their reentry, yet the number of people taking extended leave is growing. Last year, 15% of companies offered sabbaticals, and paid parental leave is on the rise. According to research from employment agency Manpower, 84% of millennials anticipate taking significant breaks from work to care for children or elderly parents, as well as for travel and vacation.
Companies that accommodate extended leave can see major benefits, from attracting and retaining top talent to renewed creativity and energy in returning employees. But offering employees leave can also pose a retention risk. Even if it’s not a formal program, taking steps to facilitate employees’ reentry to work, reassuring them that they are valued and remaining open to how their priorities might have shifted can set the tone for their return — and their subsequent years with the company.
Make A Big Deal About Their Return
When employees return from leave, they’re asking themselves questions like: Am I still valued by this company? Was I missed? Has my job changed since I left? While the size of the gesture can vary, anything from some balloons and a nice card on their desk to a lunch in their honor can help assuage some of those fears.
For example, one member of my team likes grand gestures, so when she returned from maternity leave, we wrote welcome-back notes and decorated her desk with balloons so she would feel special and loved. She was happy to know she was missed, and it started her first day back on the right foot. Everyone will respond to the time away differently, and it’s the manager’s responsibility to know their employees and find the right way to say, "Welcome back."
Consider Offering A Modified Schedule
When employees return, particularly from parental or family leave, they’re readjusting to work while continuing to adjust to new realities in their personal lives. It’s a lot to manage for anyone, and it can easily overwhelm employees — particularly when mixed with feelings about proving their value.
Consider easing them back into it. At Cornerstone, all new parents have the option to work remotely at least 50% of the time for the first eight weeks after their return from leave to slow the lifestyle change and allow time to continue bonding with the new baby. Employees can also opt out of work-related travel for the first six months of their child’s life. There are also programs in place to help team members balance work-life and childcare, like allowing all parents unlimited paid time off for doctor check-ups, tending to a sick child and attending parenting classes.
Giving employees both the space to reacclimate to the workplace and the continued flexibility to manage parenthood can help them feel cared for and valued, while also enabling them to take the time to find a schedule that helps them balance their personal priorities with work responsibilities.
Check In To Hear What They Learned
People go through a lot of introspection when they’re away from work. While time away can help an employee feel refreshed, they might return with uncertainties about work, too. In my experience, many are concerned about things like their career trajectory and their place at the company.
To address these feelings, schedule a conversation with employees about their time away. Ask questions like: What did you learn about yourself? What did you learn about the business? Did you get the support you needed while you were away? This conversation should help show employees that they are valued, that they have a future at the company and that their work is meaningful — all factors, according to research from HR consulting firm Randstad, that can contribute to employee attrition if left unrecognized.
Check In to Share What You Learned
Thanks to our hyperconnected age, people can only do so much to fully disconnect from work. Often, they’re still texting with co-workers about office goings-on and following the company on social media.
But make sure to check in with them upon their return to catch them up and, more importantly, share feedback. Typically, their team or colleagues will have learned something about how that person’s work gets done. For example, in taking over some tasks from my colleague who’s away on maternity leave, I’ve learned what an amazing job she does — but I’ve also identified a few areas I’ve worked to improve. This isn’t a conversation for their first day back: Give the returning employee a few days or even a week to start to reacclimate before diving into feedback.
Show Employees The Human Side of Work
Implementing a reentry program doesn’t have to happen all at once. It could be as simple as pairing employees with a mentor similar to many new hire onboarding programs. The ultimate goal is to show employees the human side of work. In fact, close to 60% of employees in the Randstad survey left their company because they felt their company prioritized profits or revenues over how people are treated. The opportunity to take leave can help show that that’s not the case, but how the company treats their return will also color their experience — and determine whether they feel disconnected from or reconnected to the company.
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