Opinion: returnships will only work if organisations implement flexible work practices and other supports 

By Sarah Kieran and Lorraine Ryan, University of Limerick

This week, Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, announced plans for the financing and development of "returnships" as part of Budget 2020. Returnships aim to support women trying to re-enter the workplace after an extended absence, usually spent raising their children or caring for a family member. These "re-entry internships" are not a new concept in the workplace with many organisations already providing them here in Ireland such as Johnson & Johnson's ReIgnite, Accenture's Resume and Vodafone's Reconnect.

Behind these catchy labels sit a bundle of well-researched and designed practices, usually including things such as open-information sessions, specially tailored onboarding programmes, on-the-job coaches, career mentors and frequent check-in sessions with human resources. While typically offered through paid employment (unlike the better known student internships), there are suggestions that the contracts on offer are sometimes short-term (exactly like student internships), with a view to more secure employment if "everything works out". One wonders why things might not work out. 

Career reentry expert Carol Fishman Cohen's TEDx talk about how to get back to work after a career break

The minister suggests that women might suffer from a lack of confidence and belief in themselves despite "bucket loads" of experience. That may be true, but one needs to ask why women might feel like this. Surely when the child raising or caring has passed its peak, women with such vast experience would be energised about returning to work? Is it possible that their lack of confidence and belief is not in themselves but in the work-system they exited a few years earlier?

The design of returnships needs to ensure a sustainable solution for those re-entering the workforce, not just short-term pay subsidies for the organisation waiting to see if they will "work out". The solution might actually lie in the issues that led women to exit the workforce in the first instance. The decision to give up your job to work in the home full-time is linked to a number of factors. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business. Dr Tomas Chamarro Premuzic, the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, on why women make better leaders

Money factors

Finances are a big part of the decision to give up work, specifically the presence of a partner with sufficient income to offset the loss in earnings. We are all aware that the cost of childcare in this state needs to be built into the maths. More often than not, we use the formula of Mommy’s Pay less Cost of Childcare equals Decision. A more accurate formula would (Mommy’s Pay - 50% Childcare) + (Daddy’s Pay – 50% Childcare) = Decision. Of course, not every household has two incomes.

Nevertheless, returnships require broader Government consideration. Maybe the National Childcare Scheme from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs might generate an innovative new formula in the not too distant future. What about Mommy’s Pay + Daddy’s Pay + Childcare Subsidy – Cost of Child Care x Returnship Programme = Decision?

Workplace factors

Even if the maths make sense, many families struggle to find a life-work balance due to the work culture that prevails in contemporary organisations. The opportunity to engage in flexible work practices is often only available in larger organisations but, despite displaying a range of these options on their corporate websites, active promotion to women and men of these choices in the workplace is questionable.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane Show, Mary Leahy, Amanda Evans and Karen O'Reilly talk about returning to work after a career break

The opportunities to work from home, avail of flexible start and finish times, take term time, job-share, work part-time or take compressed working hours are absolute necessities for the well-being of modern families. However, many managers either do not actively encourage or even discourage their use as they perceive flexible working to reduce their team’s productivity, when actually the opposite is the case.

The last census showed that 6.8% of "homemakers" are men so there are 20,747 men in Ireland who may be in need of returnships in the future! However, we know both men and women often do not avail of flexible work practices as they fear the consequences of even enquiring about them. There is a lack of encouragement from their managers and sometimes lack of support from colleagues who feel they will have to carry extra workloads. There is also a perception about negative career consequences as one is branded as being on the "Mommy Track", a seemingly slower route to an unclear career destination. Even when a manager might be supportive, the broader organisation’s expectations of its employees often prevents participation.

Organisational factors

Too many organisations today have unrealistic expectations of their employee's time commitment. While this is frequently blamed on the customer, where an organisation’s performance is measured by its ability to respond quickly, the digital transformation of the workplace actually allows organisations be more responsive than ever.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Evelyn O'Rourke looks at the dilemma facing adults returning to work after unemployment

The seamless transition of work between employees already happens across oceans and time zones yet many organisations still see their employees as fixed in offices, not just from nine to five, five days a week, but into the evening until the customer service or project issue is resolved.  Too often, work is measured in terms of input (time spent in the office) instead of output (the contribution one can make to the organisation) so employees (mostly the women) often choose to opt out.

Ironically, the level and range of skill dexterity needed in today's complex world of work can be associated with life-stage and years of experience. There is often an exact fit between many of today’s jobs and women trying to re-enter the workplace. In an age of artificial intelligence and robotics, human centred skills such as building and maintaining relationships, communicating well and demonstrating empathy are becoming increasingly valuable to organisations. Many of these skills are developed intuitively during caring roles and difficult to teach or replicate.

The level and range of skill dexterity needed in today's complex world of work can be associated with years of experience

In conjunction with returnships, now is the time for organisations to give serious consideration to the benefits of flexible work practices. It's time for HR departments to disrupt the "always there" cultures that have prevented women (and men) with excellent experience and skills combining care and work responsibilities. Now is the time to strive for a workplace that is inclusive and actively promotes diversity rather than just the concept of it. Without this, the best laid returnship plans will come to nothing and have us all going round in circles, returning from whence we came.

Dr Sarah Kieran is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in Human Resource Management at the Department of Work and Employment Studies at Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick. Dr Lorraine Ryan is a Lecturer in Employment Relations and Human Resource Management at the Department of Work and Employment Studies at Kemmy Business School at University of Limerick

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ