Career 2.0 – dialing up returnships at O2

Since O2 trialled its returnship scheme in early 2016, the initiative has had an unexpected impact on the UK mobile phone provider’s wider approach to recruitment.

The trial was one of a number of programmes that the firm has introduced recently in a bid to attract and retain women, particularly at the more senior levels of the business. Michelle Adams, the company’s director of talent and development, explains:

The tech industry is historically quite male-dominated, but as a customer-centric business, we want people in decision-making roles that represent the customers they serve. We also clearly recognised that increasingly large numbers of carers have to deal with ageing parents and children. Many of them have had impressive careers in the past but stepped away, so while they may not have recent experience, they do have relevant experience.

Therefore, in a bid to craft an effective returnship scheme, the company partnered with mentoring and support organisation Women Returners, both for advice and to gain access to its contacts network.

The next step was to work with business managers to identify possible roles such as business and project management, which had an “element of flexibility available, if required”. After advertising the programme as being open to both genders who had taken career breaks, a number of assessment centres were created to evaluate the large numbers of applications received.

These applicants were eventually whittled down to 12 women, who were then invited to take part in an 11-week-long ‘Career Returners’ scheme during May and June 2016. Each participant was given the opportunity to gain experience in a variety of roles across the business. They also received one-to-one mentoring from members of the company’s Women in Leadership programme as well as training in everything from using Microsoft’s Outlook to giving presentations to stakeholders. Adams says:

It was done as a quasi-internship with a view to both parties having the opportunity to see how we fitted and if there was a desire for a more long-term conversation about working together. It’s a big change of routine for people, some of whom have been out of the workplace for 10 years, so we wanted them to have the opportunity to try before they buy, although the intention was always to seek to hire people off the back of it.

Key benefits

At the end, O2 offered jobs to 10 out of the 12 women, although two decided not to join as they wanted to find employment closer to home. The remaining eight either took up vacant positions or had jobs created for them to match their expertise and areas of interest, about half of which were full-time and the rest, part-time.

But the benefits of the programme have gone way beyond simply hiring extra female staff members, says Adams. In fact, since its introduction, the organisation has seen gender representation among senior women improve across the board. Adams explains:

At the more senior end where the women entered, we upped gender representation by 3% in three months, which would normally have taken us two and a half years based on historical trends. It was pretty immediate but other parts of the business picked up on what we were doing. We kept the board up to date and promoted what was happening, and the change was almost viral.

A key reason for this change, she believes is the significant shift in line managers’ attitudes towards people who have been out of the workplace for a long time. She says:

They’ve found they don’t need to be completely fixated on recent experience. If you’ve been out of work for 10 years and you’re competing for jobs where others have more immediate experience, you’re probably not going to be top of the pile for a line manager. So it’s been about opening people’s eyes to this kind of audience and the value they can bring. In other words, that immediate experience isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all.

As a result, the company has now expanded its 2017 programme to take on 16 people and is pushing for this more open-minded view of recruitment to become “business as usual”. Adams points out:

The trial has shown us that returnships work. It’s now also informing the way we do recruitment as well as our discussions with line managers to encourage them to at least have the conversation, which they wouldn’t necessarily have done in the past.

My take

While returnship programmes will not solve the lack of females in tech issue singlehandedly, going by the experience of the likes of O2, demand for such schemes is high among women who are keen to get back to work but are not necessarily sure about how to do so. As a result, it would seem that employers have a largely untapped talent pool just waiting for them to show some interest – something that has to be worth a shot in a world in which the war for talent continues to escalate.

Image credit – O2


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