There is a playbook for Return-to-Work — ask Moms and Dads

By Betsy Hilton

At some point – maybe soon, maybe still many weeks away – we will be presented with the monumental task of bringing employees across the country back to work.

Employees who have been physically disconnected from their commuting and workplace routines for far longer than your typical vacation. Some have been working from their homes. Others laid-off, furloughed or otherwise disengaged from work entirely. Regardless, the transition will be difficult and the scale of it, unprecedented.

Fortunately, there is a resource at your fingertips – parents. Specifically, those who have recently been on maternity or paternity leave. I wouldn’t call them an “untapped resource” – they’re pretty tapped right now, to put it mildly. But organizations who manage parental leaves well – who have formal and informal policies and processes to help new parents return to work – already have a roadmap, founded on empathy and a genuine commitment to helping their employees re-enter the workplace feeling understood and supported.

For those who have never given the return-to-work post-parental leave all that much thought, now is the time to examine the best practices of organizations who have made this a priority, and to figure out the key issues employees face when they return to work after a substantial absence.

Here’s the reality: an exceptional leave re-entry program is rare. More often than not, parents return to work to find their old desk occupied, their files reassigned and their responsibilities reallocated. A lot can happen over the course of a leave; former colleagues have left or been let go, office infrastructure has moved or changed, organizational priorities have shifted, familiar suppliers and clients have moved on.

The easiest solution is to maintain the recent status quo that was built through their absence and try to squeeze the returning employee in rather than disrupt the existing flow. The show must go on, but the new parent’s place in that show isn’t anyone’s top priority in many organizations. It’s up to them to carve out their space and showcase their value in a workplace that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. All while everything at home has been disrupted, too.

It’s not exactly the same — after all, this scenario requires you to imagine that your entire workforce went on parental leave at the same time — but there are some valuable parallels that can inform your thinking on how to help your employees manage this impending transition.

Your employees have experienced sudden, disruptive change, and the expectation that they will go back to performing as normal when they return to work after all of this may feel near impossible.

Psychological burnout as we come through COVID is a significant reality for a lot of people and the list of adaptations, complexities and compounded emotional burdens is substantial: The requirement to adapt to new technologies and ways of working, to diminished or lost income, loss of daily productivity and purpose, constant insecurity and uncertainty, loss of freedom of movement, increased household responsibilities, increased childcare or dependent-care responsibilities. And that doesn’t nearly cover it all.

Leaders need to reach out to the parents in their organization now, while the planning is underway. CEOs, VPs of human resources or senior executives leading the return-to-work transition need to pick up the phone and call that mom of young kids on their team. Ask her what it was like to come back from an extended maternity leave. Ask her how your organization handled her experience, because that experience is about to be shared by everyone. Dig into the specifics of her uncertainties, her frustrations, what was most unsettling — and most helpful — in her return.

The odds are good she will say this: coming back to work after a significant period of time at home is hard. And it was months before she felt comfortable in her old routines – even if she was returning to a welcoming workplace she’d known well for years.

As leaders consider how to best support their employees when the inevitable return-to-work begins, empathy should be a guiding principle. Now that everyone has lifted the veil a bit on their lives at home (thanks to video conferencing and, among others, dogs, cats and children), there is an opportunity to remain a bit more open about who we are, and to have more empathy for the individual challenges employees face coming back, on an ongoing basis.

Organizations have been presented a uniquely challenging scenario. This is the time to take advantage of an opportunity to create corporate cultures that are welcoming, and that understand and accommodate the new challenge of leaving our lives at home.

Betsy Hilton is a mother of two and the lead of Corporate Communications and Client Strategy at Enterprise Canada, a national strategic communications and public affairs firm.

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