Returners go online

Women Returners annual conference is going online, but with all the interactive and inspirational content of its face-to-face event. spoke to CEO and co-founder Julianne Miles.

Business woman at a business center outdoors


As unemployment rises, you might think that interest in women returners would fall, but – according to Julianne Miles, CEO and co-founder of Women Returners, there is still a real commitment from progressive employers in sectors which have not been as hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic to getting experienced professionals who have taken a career break back to work.

One of the reasons for her optimism is that Women Returners’ annual conference, which runs from 12 to 13 October, has 11 corporate sponsors, the highest number ever. They include Moody’s, JP Morgan, Credit Suisse, the Bank of England, Amazon Web Services and Facebook. These will be available to chat to returners attending the online conference. “This clearly demonstrates that employers want to keep returners on the agenda. Companies have learnt lessons from the last recession when diversity programmes were cut significantly. There is still a commitment to gender diversity and ethnic diversity, and by extension to returners. One real difference from five years ago is that we have a huge number of returner champions in organisations now. I am optimistic,” she says.

Julianne acknowledges that this year has been challenging and that it is difficult for employers in sectors which have been badly hit by Covid and are making job cuts to justify returner programmes. However, she says things are picking up and that, while many returner programmes have paused this year rather than stopped altogether, some, for instance, those in the technology sector, have kept going and some new ones have even launched during lockdown. These include Women Returners’ cross-company Diversity Project Programme in the Savings and Investment sector, and programmes with dunnhumby and the Financial Reporting Council.

Julianne says for those who have taken part in returner programmes during lockdown one upside is that they have had to start remotely without having to make the transition back to the office. “Returners have told us it’s less of a shift in many ways,” says Julianne, who adds that the “massive change in attitudes to flexible working” seen over the last months will also be a big positive for returners.

Post-Covid returner programmes

Returner programmes that have taken place during this period have also had to adapt in other ways. Julianne says the support offered needs to be more structured so returnees are assigned a buddy as well as a mentor and virtual coaching and in addition to delivering training to line managers who are supporting returners. There are more regular check-ins with the programme manager and line manager because returners will not be able to ask a colleague for help as easily as in an office environment. Julianne says the face to face networking element of returner programmes has also had to adapt with online sessions being organised.

Some of Women Returners’ programmes were already moving online before Covid to make them more accessible to people living in more dispersed locations or internationally. However, Julianne says these tended to be confined to those in tech-savvy sectors.  The fact that everyone is now used to operating via Zoom or other remote platforms makes it easier to run them for a broader range of sectors. Similarly, programme cohorts have been more relaxed about sharing their feelings and thoughts in virtual coaching sessions because we are all more comfortable with using technology to connect these days.

Julianne adds that there are some similarities between returners and those coming back from furlough and those who have run returner programmes have a headstart on knowing how to support furlough returners back to work. She says: “There is that loss of routine and confidence combined with fears and doubts. There is a need to acknowledge and tackle those fears – and the new fears over safety which adds another level.”

Annual conference

She is really excited about Women Returners annual Back to your future conference which will retain the interactive and networking aspects of the face-to-face event. Women Returners has used a new conference platform called Hopin which enables a number of interactive features: video chat rooms by sector and location, sponsor booths where returners can interact with employers and one-to-one networking sessions where they can talk to attendees randomly as people do in a face-to-face conference. The event will be a combination of keynote speeches, for instance, by tech and returner employer pioneer Dame Stephanie Shirley CH and BBC presenter Jane Garvey,  as well as employer and returner panels which will be livestreamed. This will be mixed with content that is more tailored to the individual, such as one-to-one video meetings with sponsor employers.

“The conference will be very different to  just listening to other people talking. We have used innovative features to make it very interactive,” says Julianne. “It’s really exciting and more accessible as people don’t have to physically attend. There has traditionally been a concern that too much returner activity has been London-centric. If this format is successful we may carry on with it. Our mindset has shifted. Initially we were disappointed that we couldn’t hold our normal face to face conference. We felt it would lose that motivational element online, but as we have worked on it we are more and more confident that we can do something exciting and different and that the conference will be an inspirational event for all who join us.”

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