Imagine how you'd feel coming back to work after a six-month sabbatical travelling the world. Even if you're looking forward to settling back in, coming back to your desk is going to feel a bit weird!

This is where a return to work program comes into play. It's there to ease someone back into the swing of things after they've had a long time off work. You want to bring them back up to speed with anything they’ve missed, introduce them to new team members, and make sure they’ve got everything they need to settle back in.

So, let's look at how to create a decent return to work program and what to include in it, and ultimately give them a great first day back.

The benefits of having a return to work program

A return to work program is a key part of your sabbatical policy: a document that outlines the what anyone thinking of taking a sabbatical needs to know.

Support your team back into work

A return to work program gives a practical, supportive way to ease the transition for everyone involved.

When making a return to work program, though, you don’t want to have a program just for lip service. We are talking about real people and real lives. The easier you can make it for them to come back after sabbatical, the happier and more motivated they’ll be when they get back to work.

Opportunity to talk about career plans and progression

When someone comes back after a sabbatical they might have different goals and ambitions. A good return to work program is flexible. Use it to spot any new career goals, and put plans in place to make them happen.

A recent study showed the benefit that sabbaticals have on succession planning and leadership. So don't just think about the person returning, think about those who covered for them, who stepped up, skilled up, who delegated better and become more productive.

Streamlined processes means more efficiency

A back to work program makes it easier for someone to get back into the swing of things after a sabbatical, and the rest of your team will know exactly where they stand when their colleague returns to work. It helps with that oh-so-important transition and handover of work.

What should a return to work program look like?

It’s easy to think that a return to work program has to be a strict set of guidelines to follow. That isn’t the case.

The goal of a return to work program is to make it easy for somone to settle back in. We're talking guidelines here, what works for one might not work for another.

Always have a welcome back meeting, some form of refresher training, and a check-ins for every team member. As for the rest, consider each persons needs and tailor your program to match.

Some people will adjust to being back at work easier than others, for others it could be a big deal —especially if they’ve been off for a long time.

You want to reassure them and let them know you’re here to support, however long it takes. Don't be pushy, there's no “rule” for how long it should take someone to get back to pre-sabbatical productivity!

Happy people  are up to 31% more productive than those around them, so it makes sense to offer plenty of support, enthusiasm, and encouragement. Make them love Monday mornings again!

How to make a return to work program for your team

A good return to work program after a sabbatical is flexible, whilst also covering:

  1. Open up communication
  2. Review their job description and goals
  3. Look at phased return to work
  4. Plan some refresher training
  5. Pick a mentor for their return
  6. Consider the rest of your team
  7. Plan a simple first day (or week) back
  8. Follow up

1. Open up communication

Good communication is going to be key at all stages of any return to work program. Depending on circumstances, you might want to contact them in the final few weeks/days of sabbatical.

Maybe something like a casual video call to say hello, to reacquaint. Update them on what to expect when they return to work, staff changes, new systems, major events, new customers, new suppliers.

How do they feel about coming back, any concerns or support needed?

Yiuy just want to start that conversation, don't leave it till they rock up to work to tell them everything has changed.

2. Review their job description, and goals

Someone returning from sabbatical is coming back to the same job they did before. But granted, things might have changed while they were away. A run through of their job description and goals will highlight anything that needs updating and communicating.

Yet you might have new systems and processes, and new team members to work alongside. They might come back to work looking for a slight change from their old role, or wanting to use new skills learnt while on sabbatical.

It's simply a case of reviewing their job description, updating any goals and making sure everything is aligned with your current way of working.

3. Look at a phased return to work

Some people find it easier to settle back into work than others.

It'll depend on how long they’ve been on sabbatical for, and how different their off-work routine is to the one they’re coming back to. Let’s face it: it’ll be much harder for someone who spent their mornings waking up in Australia to come back to their 9-to-5!

Be open to a phased return if that'll help, maybe a day or two in the first week. Don’t throw them in at the deep end until they’re ready to come back full time.

4. Plan some refresher training

Depending on how long they've been on sabbatical for, they might need refresher training before they get back to their day-to-day tasks.

  • A demo of new software you’re using
  • Intro to new processes
  • Changes to your old processes

Whatever refresher training you’re giving, make sure it’s engaging. You don't want to bore the pants off someone by treating them like a new employee and going through every nuance of a job they've done before.

5. Pick a mentor for their return to work

Some people find it easier to settle in than others. Those who find it harder might benefit from a mentor. Someone with dedictaed time to help, someone they can go to with any questions about what changed while they were on sabbatical.

It coudl be the mentors job to help guide them through their new career goals, and answer any specific questions they might have —no matter how silly they might seem.

If you haven't considered mentorship before there's a raft of reserach on this. One study showing 89% of people think having a mentor made them feel like their employer was more invested in their development.

6. Consider the rest of your team

It’s not just the person returning to work that’ll need to readjust. Like having a new member of staff, your entire team will need to make a few changes —especially if other people have been filling in for them whilst they were away.

Team-building activities that welcome them back can help everyone readjust:

  • Virtual quiz games
  • Zoom dance parties
  • Escape rooms

Whatever you pick, it's just a bit of casual fun. A bit of time to catch-up with the people they’re working with, to make their return 10 times easier.

7. Plan a simple first day (or week) back

Someone returning to work after a sabbatical is going to need some time to get back up to speed. Don't overwhelm them, spread out your meetings, training, and other settling in activities over the first few weeks.

Again, the time it takes to get back into the swing of things depends on what they did whilst on sabbatical. Someone returning from a sabbatical to care for a loved one is in a different position to someone that’s spent a year travelling or working on their hobbies.

Have a structure for their first few weeks back, but be open to adjusting and flexing. Remember: the key is to make it as smooth as possible for them to come back to work.

8. Follow up

Final thing, a few weeks after their return take a minute to follow up and see how they found the whole experience.

Always get feedback on those first few weeks back, and find ways to tweak your return to work program for the next person, it might just be you!