When Allison Robinson was on maternity leave, she started thinking about the next stage of her career, one that included a growing family. A more flexible schedule sounded ideal, but she worried that less face time with the boss would restrict her advancement opportunities. As she explored her options, she learned that employers were also becoming more interested in nontraditional arrangements, as a way to address acute talent shortages.
She decided to find a new way to address both of these challenges, founding The Mom Project, a digital marketplace that connects people returning to the workforce with companies that need their talent. “The job market is really tight, and there’s an increased appetite for talent that doesn’t have a cookie-cutter background,” she says. The organization recently partnered with BP to attract midlevel talent, and the result is a returnship program for those who have stepped away for their career for a period of time — usually maternity leave or a similar caregiving situation — and want to transition back into the workforce.
Those candidates can be a great fit for companies like BP, which wants to attract diverse (and often hard to find) mid-level candidates for short-term, project-based work, as well as provide opportunities for people to explore new work environments. In the past, BP didn’t necessarily consider people who had breaks in their career timelines as serious job candidates, says Brian Zellner, the U.S. downstream resourcing manager at BP who helped create the company’s returnship program. The company now has five workers on four- to six-month assignments in partnership with The Mom Project.
“Corporate America as a whole is going to have to acknowledge we have a changing demographic,” Zellner says. “There are different needs and models of work we’re going to have to embrace if we want diversity and different perspectives.”
Looking to build your own returnship program? Here’s what Zellner and Robinson said they learned from the pilot project.
Focus on Opportunities for Growth
You’ve just made an important investment in the future of your team. Now, trust that decision. Make sure that you let your new hires show their stuff on meaningful projects that drive the company’s future. That way, employees returning to the workforce can offer their “outsider” perspectives as they grow their skills in the direction the organization is headed. “We didn’t just want to create work for the sake of creating work,” Zellner says. “We wanted something that provided real-life impact to us.”
BP also set up opportunities for people in the program to build their networks by familiarizing themselves with the company’s different “downstream” businesses, Zellner says. They got an overview of retail operations, a tour of an oil refinery and education about trading oil and gas commodities. They also got to meet with senior leaders. “It’s been a balance of not just coming in and doing project work, but also support and guidance and exposure to senior executives,” he says.
Set Clear Expectations
Returnships and other nontraditional arrangements show their strengths when you structure them for communication and cooperation. Setting and communicating expectations will help everyone involved leverage their time and talents for the best group result. “For BP, this was a 40-hour work week, and workers were expected to come into the office,” she says. For other projects, there may be remote work, part-time hours or other models.
No matter how the returnship is structured, laying a strong foundation will help you make it a success, Robinson says. “They may not have been in a traditional office environment for several years, so it’s important to make sure they feel welcome, supported and challenged.”
To accomplish that, Zellner says, each participant also had an internal company mentor who could help them learn about BP and show them the ropes. Representatives from The Mom Project offered coaching and feedback when participants needed it.
Keep an Open Mind
Remember that the participants’ time away from the workplace has been filled with character-building events and life experiences that give these candidates new and useful perspectives. “Traditionally, we were apprehensive of folks who have been out of the workforce, but now we recognize that the skill set and the experience they had before they went on a career break didn’t go away,” Zellner says.
Robinson says it’s important for larger companies to remember that the flexibility returning workers want can take many different forms. “So many times, the knee-jerk reaction is, ‘We don’t offer flexibility, where do we begin?’ But it doesn’t always mean part-time or working remotely all week,” she says, and project-based work can provide opportunities to explore more diverse talent. “For us, it’s all about meeting companies where they are and creating a roadmap.”