Tips for guiding an employee back to remote working after parental leave (from someone who’s been there!)

Your team member’s been enjoying parental leave and you’ve been with them along the way: keeping in touch, encouraging the baby spam (awww #cutenessoverload!), and now it’s time to support their transition back to the workplace. But how does that look when they’re returning to work remotely? Have you thought of everything?

Catherine Brooks, lawyer and fundraising expert (not to mention gracious and fearless leader!), shares her reflections on reintegrating a colleague after parental leave; demonstrating why it’s a two-way street… and that a little thoughtful leadership goes a long, long way.

Wow, what a strange year it’s been! From office shut-downs, relocations, ‘pivots’, iso rules, childcare being cancelled… we sure have been dealing with a lot, particularly Melburnians with the extended lockdown.

When our office closed in March and we all commenced working from home, our operations manager worked hard to make sure that we all still felt connected, supported and part of a wider team and mission. Those first few weeks are a haze, but I feel proud about our efforts to keep up momentum and make sure our staff and clients still felt happy and connected. 

One of our staff members was on parental leave when COVID hit, and was celebrating the birth of her second child. Whilst we kept her in the loop about what was going on with the business during this time (in line with our keeping-in-touch obligations set out in the regulations of the Fair Work Act), it was when she transitioned back to work that we really had to consider how to transition her back to work during COVID. 

I learnt a lot from our staff member during this process and I wanted to share the tips and tricks she taught me, and throw in a few tips for managers out there too, about how to successfully transition an employee back to work during a pandemic. 

The process from a practical perspective 

1. First up, communicate communicate communicate
In our business, we’ve found that there’s no such thing as over communicating during COVID. This applies even more so to someone on parental leave and when it comes to transitioning them back into the workplace. 

When someone is planning on returning to work, it’s important that you book in a preliminary first discussion as early as possible, and together (both manager and employee) talk through: 

  • How the parental leave is going (employee).
  • What’s going on with the business during COVID and since the employee embarked on their leave (manager)?
  • What might a transition look like (does the employee want to return? What hours are they capable of working? When would they be looking to transition back? In what capacity?)? NB: at this stage, lots of questions should be asked by the manager. It’s an information gathering discussion, not a planning one. That should come later.
  • A plan for when you should both check in again to further solidify the return.

2. Firm up that plan
If it’s clear that the employee’s return is imminent, and the manager has had the ability to consider how best to reintegrate the employee into the workplace, it’s now time to firm up the plan and nut out the practicalities of that return. 

Some practical questions should be considered that deal with how any work may best be performed (e.g. taking into account childcare, or lack thereof given COVID, equipment that may be needed, hours of work and increasing those hours over a period of time, etc.). Firm up the return to work plan together, and if there are questions that can’t be answered just yet, lock in another meeting in a week or so to keep the discussion going. 

3. The return
It’s important that there be a communication plan in place to announce an employee’s return and explain to the rest of the team how that employee will be working given these strange times. Consider the use of a team meeting to provide an opportunity for anyone to ask questions, and be prepared for wariness (and weariness) when it comes to more change. Remember, people don’t like change at the best of times, so throw in all the changes that COVID has forced us to embrace, and the team may be reticent to consider more changes. Pre-empt any questions and carefully consider how you’re going to make everyone feel comfortable about the reintegration of the employee (in the best interests of everyone). 

4. Reintroduction to the team
When our employee started back, she did this awesome thing and organised a Zoom coffee catch up with groups of people that were working on projects that she needed to get across. It was so clever because we were able to see her lovely face again after so long, and also fill her in on the workplace changes that we had implemented to successfully work with each other and our clients during COVID. This in turn made her life easier as, although it was an upfront investment in time, it meant she was able to dive into the work with a full understanding of the new filing system (for example) and new project management tools that we’d started using at the commencement of lockdown. This was also a great way for her to reconnect with the team on a personal level and communicate with them her availability and communication preferences. Again, no such thing as over communication in lockdown, and I think this is particularly so for someone reintegrating into the team. 

5. Check ins
We then organised a number of check ins (between our ops manager, HR support and the employee) to make sure that our employee had everything she needed to do her job. This was a great opportunity to provide clarity around changes of work and systems, and answer any questions that we’d failed to address in earlier discussions. Sometimes we’d actually forgotten that a system or tool was new (until we were reminded by our staff member) so we appreciated the opportunity to provide clarity and receive feedback on certain systems/tools too. 

When I told our staff member that I was preparing this blog piece she had some great insights about her experience. Here are her nuggets of gold and reflections: 

I would say that from a personal perspective, it has been easier to return back to work whilst still being at home (as I can still breastfeed and the kids feel like I’m still around as I’m not commuting to/from work and I get to have lunch breaks with them).

“From a professional perspective, I knew that it would be challenging coming back in this environment as I would not be able to easily reach out to others in the team when I had queries, and collaboration would be more of an effort. I really wanted to also touch base with everyone to check in on them all individually, as coming back into work via the virtual world can be harder to connect with people and can be challenging for the culture of a workplace (hence requires that extra and ongoing effort!).

“I found the daily quizzes [we stop at 11am every day and do the quiz in The Age together as a team!] also a great way to feel connected with the team. As well as being able to have virtual meetings where learnings can be shared via ‘shared screen’ options, etc.”

So, if you have a staff member returning to work during COVID, or you are an employee planning your return in the near future, set some time aside to consider how you might best work through that reintegration and, I promise you, time spent planning and thinking about this process up front will pay dividends for when the return actually happens. 

Have you returned to work during COVID or managed someone’s reintegration? What tips can you provide to other working parents also returning during COVID?

Written by Catherine Brooks, a practising lawyer for over a decade and now fundraising expert in the not-for-profit sector. Catherine is also the author of Let’s make it work, baby!: A kick arse guide to personal and professional success for new parents.  

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