Are Return-To-Work Programs A Success Or A Task? Here’s The Insider View

Drawing from the roundtable ‘Return-to-Work: A Success Or Task?”, HR experts and D & I Leaders discuss the efficiency of return-to-work programs in relaunching women’s careers after a break.

“After a career break of almost six years, I interviewed at two companies. One was Oracle, and the other was its competitor. I made it to the final round in both places, but there was one stark difference. The Senior Hiring Manager at the competitor firm indicated they were taking a risk by hiring me because I was a woman returning to work – but willing to invest resources in me. The Manager at Oracle, on the other hand, said, ‘We are so happy you chose us to come back.’”

Nancy Dewan, Talent Advisory, Oracle, shared the anecdote as a panelist in Women’s Web Roundtable titled, ‘Return To Work Programs: A Success Or A Task?’ Panel members also included Urvashi Verma, Head Talent Acquisition APAC, Xperi, Prem Velayudan, Regional Leader – HR Business Partner at VMware India, Vineeta Mittal, Director of People and Culture, Grant Thornton Bharat, Trupti Sridhar, Advisor, Diversity Hiring Programs, Dell Technologies and Kaveri Ingale, Managing Director, Operations at Believe. The session was moderated by Lochan Narayanan,  Founder, OfExperiences.

As Nancy shared, women who return to work after a career break can experience either of the situations. For some, it can be a smooth transition, whereas for others, it could be a taxing journey.

Focused on this, the HR experts and D & I leaders discussed the prevalence of Return-To-Work (RTW) Programs for women and the opportunities they bring in relaunching their careers. From gaps to best practices, the roundtable offered insight into the key factors determining the efficiency of the RTW programs across corporate organizations.

So, how are these programs perceived today?

Women and RTW

Reports suggest that 78% of Indian women opt for career breaks for several reasons. Predominantly employed women utilize them when experiencing life-altering events such as marriage or childbirth. Does that mean their career has come to an end? No.

Trupti Sridhar said, “For many women, breaks are inevitable. Career breaks are a pause. It is necessary to normalize career comebacks.” Data states that 76% of women in India decide to resume their careers after a break.

Return to Work programs, therefore, become crucial in helping women relaunch their careers after acknowledging the gap on their resume.

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For Kaveri Ingale, RTW programs bring holistic gains and are extremely useful for young mothers. She said, “Return to Work programs aim to build conducive workplaces for employees. They work as enablers to drive holistic diversity in the workplace.”

Nancy Dewan stated, “A successful RTW program brings women to work and allows them to grow in their careers.”

As a return-to-work mother herself, Trupti Sridhar agreed. “A lot of things need to fall in place to ensure the woman returning to work feels included. What created a positive experience for me was seeing a lot of role models who made successful comebacks.” 

The roundtable showed that women make a  career comeback for reasons beyond financial stability. However, there are several hurdles they need to overcome to earn the position.

Gaps in RTW Programs

Incorporating RTW programs is becoming popular today. However, the programs can fail if they are unaligned with the pace at which business markets and societies are growing today.

Prem Velayudan shared, “Immense thought goes in when we design RTW programs. We must understand the big picture focused on the business portfolio, talent landscape, and individual needs. We can notice gaps when we analyze these elements.”

Gaps can often crop up in the form of unconscious biases, misalignment of business goals and RTW programs, the unavailability of resources, and more.

A notable gap, Nancy said, was on the technological front. Women who go on long career breaks miss opportunities involving technical roles. She said, “We want to see women grow in tech roles. However, the tech evolution is drastic. A gap of 4-5 years tends to leave women out of touch. As a result, they find it difficult to crack the interviews.”

Another gap emerges when inclusion policies only exist on paper. Prem said, “We need managers at each level to walk the inclusion talk. Everyone from the CEO to the line managers must imbibe inclusion daily.”

Each manager needs to inculcate organizational values and culture oriented to women returning to work. Awareness plays an integral role in tackling this gap.

Vineeta Mittal said, “In some cases, it may be possible that women returning to work face micro-aggression or bias. However, as managers, it becomes our duty to recognize that the career history of the employees does not matter. What matters is the skills and values they bring to the table. To ensure none of this happens, managers and peers must train to promote employee safety and well-being.” 

Upon identifying these challenges, the experts on our panel discussed ways for organizations to make RTW programs an overall success. Let us take a look at the suggestions they proposed based on experiences.

Best practices for RTW

Each organization establishes its goal focused on RTW policies. However, certain behaviors work well across organizations and industries to help women accelerate their careers. Here are a few:

Employee-value focused culture

An organizational culture that values employees prevents attrition and maintains the retention of women who join through RTW programs. Our panelists suggested ways to communicate these values.

Trupti stated, “Fostering an inclusive culture is a big step. When we train and sensitize each individual to the experiences of women returning to work – we build a bias-free culture.”

Prem suggested that such culture flourishes when employees actively participate in the communication of inclusivity. He shared, “Employees play a vital role in making a difference. Communicate, discuss the company’s long and short-term goals with them, and plant the seeds of inclusion through collaborative efforts.”

Women returnees accelerate in their careers when teams across organizational levels understand their value as employees.

Safe expression and flexibility

A culture that values employees thrives in those organizations where employees have a safe space to express themselves.

Urvashi shared, “We understand women reentering the workforce have experiences of maternity or marriage. However, it is crucial to recognize that women may also have experienced domestic abuse and mental health challenges and are restarting their lives. In any circumstance, women need to have a supportive environment where they can place their trust in their colleagues and teams.”

Therefore, organizations must create safe channels through which women can share their concerns with the appropriate managers or counselors without being judged or punished.

Similarly, workplaces that promote flexibility are also useful resources for women returning to work. Kaveri stated, “When RTW programs promote flexibility of locations and timings, they can help women adjust better to the work culture.”

Vineeta strongly suggested, “Culture, continued awareness, and psychological safety help empower women and are the pathway to inclusive workplaces.”

Training and resources

Women on career breaks may lose job opportunities due to legitimate gaps in skills and training. To overcome this barrier, organizations can:

  • Onboard women as trainees on real-time projects
  • Provide certified training through external platforms
  • Arrange specialized workshops to help women upskill and reskill in certain areas.

Additionally, Urvashi suggested organizations can break down one position into several roles. Doing so can help women qualify for a role requiring a particular skill and then upskilling rather than requiring holistic knowledge.

Support systems and ERGs

Support from managers, leaders, and peers extensively helps women returning to work gain confidence in their respective spaces. To ensure such environments are available, HR teams can design programs that sensitize each employee on inclusivity.

Prem stated, “We need to design programs that sensitize managers, peer groups, and the entire ecosystem on how to interact with women returning from a break. At the same time, these programs must empower women to build confidence in themselves, enhance future skills, and support career journey.”

Alongside, networking and mentorship opportunities through resource groups enable women to develop skills and grow.

Role Models

Lastly, creating awareness of Return-to-work programs through the representation of role models motivates women to rejoin the workforce. Self-doubt and stereotypes stop women from considering returning to work after breaks. The presence of role models can change that.

Vineeta and Kaveri suggested that organizations must actively leverage communication and social media to build the representation of women returning to work. Their success stories, mentorship, and advice can help women realign their expectations as women returning after short or long-term breaks.

Overall, are return-to-work programs a success or a task? Our panelists said, “A success when we design and implement them empathetically and thoughtfully.” 

While these programs may also be a work in progress in some arenas, the big picture indicates that they are helping women consider returning to work. Are you a woman on a career break or someone who was on one? Tell us what your experience was!


About the Author

Rhea Sakhardande

I am a researcher working toward understanding the complex fabric of society. I have a Master's degree in Sociology and am currently exploring Diversity and Inclusion in corporate spaces. read more...

28 Posts | 17,757 Views

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