Nearly all leaves are due to a major event in someone’s life—having a baby, losing a loved one, undergoing surgery, and navigating mental health challenges are just some of the reasons someone may take a leave. That’s why it's important for managers to be thoughtful and intentional when welcoming someone back from leave.
Additionally, it costs 150% of someone’s salary to replace them, so there are also financial incentives for helping someone settle comfortably back into the workplace. Making sure an employee feels supported during this time is one of the best ways you can retain talent across your team.
Here are four tips for welcoming a team member back to work.
1. Get organized ahead of their return
Whether or not you’ve taken a leave yourself, it’s easy to imagine the stress someone might feel before returning to work. Weeks or months of work have happened, including new hires, new projects, and maybe even new company goals or initiatives. Someone returning from a leave will likely have a ton of questions, and maybe even anxiety around the uncertainty.
First, understand your company policies (review your employee handbook or set up a meeting with HR). Some companies may outline specific expectations for employees returning to work from a leave, or even have a return-to-work transition program. Affirm, for example, provides both birth and non-birth parents a 4-week ramp back program at full base pay. If someone is only coming in a few days a week for that first month, you’ll want to take that into consideration when building their 30-60-90 day plan (more on that later).
After reviewing company policies, you can ease your team member’s swirling thoughts by taking the time to think through what they’ve actually missed. There will be time-sensitive updates and some that can wait a few days or weeks. Try to filter the information so as not to bombard them on their first day.
Then, consider putting together a one-pager with any changes that have taken place within the team and organizations, and how projects have progressed during leave. You may want to review company policies for what you do and don’t need to share if any updates feel particularly sensitive (for example, if there were redundancies made during their time away).
Of course, your team member will be eager to see how they fit back into the fabric of the team and greater organization. Collaborate on a 30-60-90 day plan, as if they’re a new hire. Don’t expect them to jump right back in at their full capacity as they readjust and get caught up.
2. Listen—and lead with empathy
You can read all the advice on the internet and while you’ll likely find some helpful nuggets of information, nothing is as important as listening to your team member’s experience. Maybe after your parental leave, you felt intense brain fog and anxiety and dreaded ramping back up at work. But perhaps your team member views work as a welcome return to normality and is eager to jump right back into where they left off. Try not to make assumptions about what’s best for your employee upon their return.
Even before you share updates and create your 30/60/90 day plan, set up a one-on-one for their first day back. Ask direct and empathetic questions, and actually ask your team member how they want to approach coming back to work.
Also important to discuss: boundaries. While it may seem counterintuitive to help a team member set boundaries, having a mutual understanding of what these are and how to communicate them will be helpful to your entire team in the long run. Here are some ideas for phrases someone can use, which you might suggest if/when relevant:
- “I have a hard stop at XX time.”
- “I will not be available for the next 30 minutes.”
- “I won’t be able to join at this time, even with my video off.”
- “I can’t. I have to go pump.”
While these phrases may seem straightforward, actually communicating about what they mean and giving a sense of permission to use them can be helpful. If these don’t feel helpful or relevant, talk about other ways in which your team member can set effective and clear boundaries.
It’s important, also, to manage your own expectations and lead with empathy—change is hard and they’ve likely just gone through a lot of changes in a relatively short period of time.
3. Encourage community
If your team member is open to it (remember to listen and minimize making assumptions), encourage them to seek community with others who may have recently taken a leave. For example, if they’re returning from a parental leave, you may want to highlight any parenting communities within your organization and encourage them to join if it feels appropriate.
We spoke to working parents about what made a parenting employee resource group (ERG) a positive experience, and most agreed that it was helpful to have a safe space where their personal and professional lives could merge more openly.
Olivia, a new mom working in HR for a software company, said, “I appreciate how the leaders of our parenting ERG send emails and Slack messages to managers when Covid cases are up. They notify them that schools may be closing and to check in with parents on their team to see if they need support. It’s also a great place for recommendations; it’s a safe space to ask about random things like portable baby monitors or a mask your 2-year-old won’t rip off.”
Community is critical to feeling like they still belong within the company, and can even strengthen ties as they meet new people and engage in new sub-communities.
4. Set yourself up for success
A team member’s leave impacts your whole team—and that includes you. You don’t have to know all the answers, lean on HR and other managers (either internally or externally) who have recently had employees go on leave, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Additionally, be upfront with both your team members and organization leaders about adjusting expectations with reduced headcount. This is ideally a conversation that happens before someone goes on leave, but it’s worth having again when that person returns.
Coming back from a leave can feel overwhelming, but there is a lot a manager can do to create a more seamless experience for their team members. From active listening to co-creating a back to work plan, welcoming someone back from leave is a team effort.
Cocoon helps employees and their managers navigate every aspect of their leave, including their transition back to work. Learn how we can help support your team.