Whether for maternity, paternity, elder care, or sick leave, most of us will need to take an extended leave from work at some point in our lives. While many companies have leave policies in place, not all organizations understand the challenges of returning to work and the importance of providing support to employees when they return to work after these types of leave. Whether employees are trying to regain their strength after an extended hospital stay, or struggling with the demands of caring for a newborn, it’s important for companies to have an “on-ramping” policy that formally eases the employee’s transition back to work with the option of working reduced hours for a limited period of time.

Without an on-ramping policy in place, companies risk losing valuable employees at a vulnerable time when they may feel forced to choose between home and work.  With the correct amount of support and a gradual increase in workload, these employees can often successfully return to full-time work or a permanent flexible schedule.  Once back at work, it’s important that these employees (all employees for that matter) have the option of a flexible work schedule.  Employees should be able to design a new schedule that fits their and their organization’s needs using holistic flexible work options, including telecommuting, reduced hours, job sharing and delayed arrival or late departure times.

The good news is that research shows that companies are beginning to understand the importance of on-ramping policies that are “automatic but voluntary.” Requiring employees to ask for permission to work a reduced schedule for a limited period of time after returning from an extended leave can reduce usage and often contributes to premature attrition.  In a recent benchmarking survey conducted by the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance, we found that there has been a substantial increase in the implementation of automatic but voluntary on-ramping policies in law firms.  In 2014, among firms surveyed with an on-ramping policy, only 13% had automatic but voluntary on-ramping policies, whereas in 2015 the share increased to 79%.

On-Ramping Guidelines

If your company wants to retain top talent and is ready to commit to fully supporting its employees returning from extended leave, you can begin the process of creating a successful automatic but voluntary on-ramping policy by following a few simple guidelines.

First, the policy needs to be defined and in written form so that it is available to everyone and non-stigmatized (i.e., not just for new moms!). The organization should define the length of time of the reduced schedule and when employees are expected to return to their full schedule.  Different options will fit the personal circumstances and needs of different employees.  The policy should provide guidelines and state examples of different options for graduated intervals of work and pay scales.  It should also clearly state the other forms of holistic flexibility that are permitted, including working from home, leaving early, and arriving late, etc.

Once the policy is outlined, the organization needs to map out its implementation.  It is important to consider what steps need to be taken to make sure the program is a success.  It is critical to have buy-in from company leadership and to designate a staff member responsible for actively managing the program.  This person would be responsible for ensuring that support is in place before, during and after an employee takes family or medical leave.  It is helpful to have a written “tool-kit” for employees to refer to and to designate a mentor or coach to provide support and guidance to the employee throughout the leave and during on-ramping.

As with other types of company policies, it’s critical that the on-ramping program be measured and monitored to ensure ongoing success.  Employees using the on-ramping policy should be asked to provide feedback and the policy should be adjusted as needed.  When measuring the policy more holistic strategies for support and success should be considered.  Is the company meeting the varied needs of all the employees regardless of why they took the leave?  Are the support structures such as the written “tool kit”, and the mentors and coaches helpful?  Is the company still losing valuable employees after extended leaves?

These are just some of the steps to take when creating and implementing your company’s on-ramping policy.

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