An employee returning from long service or maternity leave may not need the full onboarding experience, but they might benefit from reboarding.
The ins and outs of onboarding are well known to most HR professionals: show the new employee their desk, introduce them to their colleagues, make sure they’ve got all the tools they’ll need and, most importantly, tell them where they can find the best coffee spot.
But what should you do when the person you’re onboarding has already worked for you before? Maybe they are returning after a few months off on long service leave. Maybe they’ve taken a year off to have a baby. Perhaps they’re a boomerang employee you’re rehiring.
They’ve got the lay of the land down pat. They know where to snag the best cup of coffee. And they’ve got their code for the printer. So you don’t need to onboard them again, right? Well, not exactly. But they may benefit from a reboarding experience.
Reboarding should happen for any employee who has been away from the workplace for more than 12 weeks, says Elizabeth Kingston, CEO and founder of Kingston Human Capital. Some organisations will even reboard employees after eight weeks, she adds.
“Our organisations can change in short periods of time. Whether that’s our technologies, our objectives, our priorities, or who’s in what role,” she says. “Often we don’t even notice the changes, so when someone returns after an extended period of time away, we completely underestimate what they need to be brought up to speed on.”
From a productivity standpoint, reboarding helps returning employees get up to speed faster. It can also help them reintegrate into the current workplace culture more smoothly. And, according to Kingston, it offers them a level of psychological safety as they transition back.
“Reboarding is a plan that reminds you to check in with the employee and creates a structure around their return, so they’re not just thrown in the deep end.”
Before they come back
Reboarding should begin before the employee’s return date. Kingston starts the process six to eight weeks out.
At this point you could begin looping them into team emails or group chats, or you could record team meetings so the returning employee can watch them, if they’d like to, at a time that’s convenient to them.
“I have a client who recorded these ‘dear diary’ type [videos] updates fortnightly that he sent to an employee coming back from maternity leave,” says Kingston.
In these videos the organisation’s CEO explained what had changed in the organisation over the last week, sharing information on anything from new hires to project updates.
“By the time she came back, she had a years’ worth of these three-minute updates and felt like she had never left.”
Kingston acknowledges not every organisation has the time or resources to do this, but when it is possible, she suggests you start early and get the employee’s perspective on what would help them to reintegrate into the workforce.
For example, when an employee announces their pregnancy, you might sit them down and plan out their return-to-work plan with them. You could ask them when they’d like to be looped into conversations (i.e. They might want to be notified of any new clients/big projects added to their portfolio) and ask about any fears they might have around missing out on important information. This way you can address those concerns upfront and ease their mind before they go on extended leave.
A trap many organisations fall into is assuming the returning employee will be exactly the same as when they left the organisation, says Kingston.
“You’re not the same organisation. They’re not the same person. I think it’s good to recognise that from the beginning,” she says.
Time away from work can really give people a new perspective, says Kingston, so it’s worth talking through how their needs and priorities have changed.
On the organisation side, she suggests you overestimate how many changes have occurred in the workplace. (The checklist at the end of this article should help with that.)
Making reboarding successful
Once you’ve begun the reboarding process, Kingston has five things you should keep in mind.
1. Ask your last returning employee for advice
Almost every organisation underestimates how much can change in a short period of time, says Kingston.
Some organisations don’t organise software training for employees they’re reboarding, especially if they’ve used the technology before, she says. But sometimes, even if you’re using the same software, updates can change the user experience.
Think about when you update your phone’s iOS only to find all your apps have moved and now you’re not even sure how to turn the flashlight on.
To avoid this, leverage the learnings from the last employee who returned after an extended period of time off, or a new employee. They might open your eyes to something you hadn’t noticed.
However, be aware that every reboarding experience will be different, so not all lessons will be immediately transferable. It’s just a good place to start.
2. Keep an eye on their emotional state
Just like a company can change, so too can an employee. When returning from a long period of time off, employees might be different (especially if they’ve just become a parent), so they might respond or react to things in a different way than you’re used to.
Kingston uses the John Fisher personal transition curve to help reboarding employees articulate their emotional state.
The curve suggests that people go through a similar range of emotions as they deal with change. Asking an employee to point to where they are on the curve can help an employer respond effectively to their needs.
Image: John Fisher personal transition curve via Businessballs.
“Returning to the workplace can be a really emotional experience, so you need to be checking with their feelings and making sure they feel comfortable to speak up if they’re struggling,” she says.
Employees will often start reboarding feeling optimistic about returning to work and the challenge ahead, she says, but as they continue they may begin to feel lost in what should be a familiar environment. The reboarded employee may need additional support at this time, so it’s important leaders have regular check-ins with them and are keeping an eye on their emotional state.
3. Acknowledge redefinition of roles
Another issue a returning employee can face is finding out a former coworker (possibly a former subordinate) is now their manager or has risen in the ranks in some way.
“In these instances, I would encourage the new manager to sit down with the employee and say, ‘OK, I’m in a position where I need to give you direction and constructive feedback. How do I do this while preserving our friendship and making you feel respected?’” says Kingston.
You should also share this information with the returning employee ahead of time – perhaps by sending an updated organisational chart – so they’re not caught off guard.
4. Make task ownership clear
When the employee returns, make it clear which tasks have been returned to them.
“Be very deliberate with this by saying, ‘Jane, this is your task to manage from start to finish’. This is to avoid that awkward handover where two people are assigned to a task and no one really knows who’s doing what.”
There will also need to be a conversation with the employee who has been covering for the person on leave, says Kingston. It’s understandable they might want to finish a project they’ve already begun while the returning employee might want to jump back into their old role right away. It will be up to HR and management to make it clear to both employees who owns what.
5. Create an opportunity to socialise
Returning employees need an opportunity to reconnect with their colleagues, says Kingston, this means giving them a chance to catch up without their managers.
“One of the strongest things you can do to help the employee rebuild their connection with coworkers is tell your team, ‘I want you all to go out for lunch without me,’” says Kingston.
Teams need a chance to catch up, debrief and share the latest office gossip without worrying about what their manager might think. It’s a vital part of solidifying those team connections and helping the returning employee to feel part of the bigger picture.
Lastly, Kingston has a series of questions that can help you decide what needs to be covered during the reboarding process:
- How have their priorities changed? (i.e. are they still gunning for a promotion and therefore will need specific upskilling opportunities, or are they happy where they are?).
- Which projects have been completed and which have started since they left?
- Does the company have new objectives? (i.e. perhaps it’s trying to capture a new market or maybe it’s looking for growth in a certain department).
- What technology changes and upgrades have occurred during their time off? (Kingston suggests looping IT in for this one).
Returning to a workplace after time off can be daunting for the employee, but by putting a structure in place and acknowledging how the organisation and the employee have changed you can make the process much smoother.
Change can be difficult, but if you have the right tools you’ll be better placed to handle it. Take AHRI’s short course to learn more.