Starting A Returnship Program: Tips For Flexible Companies

30th Mar 2023

Returnships are changing the way flexible companies hire diverse talent. Though a relatively new concept in the UK, flexible working Returnships have been running since 2008 in the US, flag shipped by Goldman Sachs. Following the US lead, Flexa is seeing a rapid rise in flexible working Returnships as UK businesses compete for female corporate talent to boost gender balance and diversity at the mid to senior level. 

Returnships are 3-6 months of well-paid internships for experienced, professional women returning to work after an extended career break of two to 10+ years. A Returnship provides talented leaders with a fast route back to senior roles in flexible companies that offer a comprehensive mentoring program, coaching and technical up-skilling program. During this time, Returnship cohorts work on paid assignments of commercial value, with a strong possibility of ongoing senior roles at the end of the Returnship. The conversion rate from Returnship to a permanent contract with flexible working hours is currently 85%, reflecting the talent and commitment of executive women returning to work after an extended time away.

Returnships are a win-win for flexible companies and women returning to work since they are a low-risk means of evaluating some of the most talented female candidates for senior positions. In this blog, we provide 4 key focal points for flexible companies considering Returnships as part of their recruitment strategy.

How flexible is your company?

Most applicants for Returnships are older female professionals - 35 to 50-year-old mothers who now wish to combine family commitments with their executive roles. Flexibility is, therefore, high on the list of priorities for this unique talent pool, and most Returnship candidates would like to re-enter their careers on a part-time or flexible working basis. Some key points for all businesses to consider:

  • Since most professional job seekers and Returnship candidates are keen to work for flexible companies, a flexible working culture is essential to brand strategy. 
  • Does your organisation promote a transparent, flexible working culture at every level?
  • Consider where, when and how much your returner cohort needs to work and aim to design your Returnship program upon a flexible working foundation.

1. Begin with a Needs Analysis

When identifying whether a flexible working Returnship program will benefit your organisation, involve different departments in discussions and feedback, including talent acquisition and hiring managers. Every department must buy into the concept of flexible working Returnships for professional women returning to work. Some key questions for analysis:

  • What is your ratio of women to men in leadership positions – is gender equality a focus? 
  • Are there specific departments that need to attract more diverse female talent?
  • What is your retention rate as women progress through the mid to senior level? Can you identify the reasons they are leaving? 
  • Will a flexible working Returnship in your company provide a solid bridge back for executive women returning to work after an extended absence?

2. Factors to consider for a flexible returnship program

  • Length – most flexible working Returnships are 3-6 months, but this can vary. How long does your Returnship cohort need to be trialled and mentored to give them the best chance of achieving a permanent management role at the end of the Returnship? Define how best to manage performance by identifying achievable goals within the Returnship timeframe.
  • Training – Create a training structure for your Returnship program which meets both your business needs and the flexible working needs of your returners. Match types of training and frequency to the roles you are recruiting for. Training may include assigning an experienced mentor or “Buddy”, weekly meetings with managers, coaching, workshops, time for online courses to up-skill, and networking. Remember to also provide training to the department managers and mentors responsible for the Returnship cohort—build-in opportunities for catch-up and review.
  • Returnship type – cohort or rolling? A cohort Returnship means a select group of professional women join the Returnship simultaneously. When the Returnship ends, the company and the candidate decide if there is mutual interest in a permanent role. A rolling Returnship means a company hires returners for individual Returnships as and when potential roles become available. 
  • Offering permanent roles - What success criteria will you use to recruit individuals into permanent positions upon completion of their flexible working Returnship? 

3. Adapt your recruitment process to match your target market

The sourcing, screening and hiring process is unique when targeting executive women returning to work after an extended career break. Research by HP shows women tend to apply for roles that nearly 100% match their skillset. Given their professional self-confidence has taken a knock after time away to care for family, these talented women often do not feel in the loop or worthy of re-entering their profession, and it can be daunting. So a softer approach to hiring for flexible working Returnships is essential.