Having a career break used to be thought of as a bit of a taboo...
Having a career break used to be thought of as a bit of a taboo -
a gap that should be hidden on your CV and certainly not mentioned in interviews.
The pandemic, however, pushed millions of people in the UK (1.75 million according to Office for National Statistics data) to take an enforced career break, and a staggering 84% of those are women. Considering the interior design industry is predominantly female, this has created a noticeable skills shortage throughout the sector. While women have often taken time out from their careers to start and maintain a family, there has been too little time, thought or money invested within the industry to support their return to work but it’s now a necessity. So what can the interior design industry do to successfully welcome women returners back into the fold?
Returnships & Supported Hiring
Returning to work after a career break can feel pretty intimidating - feelings of low self-confidence and outdated skills are often exaggerated by the difficulty of finding a role that allows you to re-enter at the same level as when you left. So back in 2017 the government pledged £5 million for ‘returnships’ to support women back to work - the idea of returnships originally being a 3 - 6 month competitively-paid internship designed for experienced professionals with mentorship and on-the-job training, and a strong possibility of a role at the end of the placement. Although this kind of return programme has been well-integrated into some big corporates like Amazon and Microsoft, the interior design industry has been a little slower off the blocks.
The advantage of this tardiness is that returnships and return-to-work programs have evolved and adapted over the last 5 years depending on what worked and what didn’t, so those who are late to the party can benefit from the learnings of earlier initiatives. One of the key learnings has been that 3 months is often not long enough to get returners fully up to speed and using their skills in time to be offered a permanent role at least a month before the placement ends. So now the typical length of a returnship is closer to 6 months, allowing returners to bed in and really show the employer what they can bring to the table.
Another change has been in how returnships are structured. Whereby previously returners would be assigned to a project, employers have found that it is more beneficial and productive for returners to actually do a job as if working on a temporary to permanent basis; with available headcount at the end if the returnship has been successful. According to Women Returners, the return to work specialists, these changes have “led to much higher post programme retention rates in recent years. We’ve seen the conversion rate to ongoing roles rise from about 50% to closer to 80-100%, as programmes are increasingly structured with this longer-term perspective.”
As a result of this increased success, some employers are taking it one step further and implementing a supported hiring model. In this model, returners are taken on as full-time employees from the get-go so it is like starting a regular job, but during the application process and their first few weeks in the role they’re provided with support, including mentorship and training in the same way as with a returnship.
Returnships are well worth considering and can be hugely beneficial for not only the returners but also employers by presenting a unique opportunity to welcome different brains from different backgrounds into the organisation.
Parents have a lot of responsibilities, so being able to offer flexible scheduling is key to attracting more women back into the design industry. This could include allowing people to work remotely on certain days, giving them the opportunity to work fewer hours with reduced pay or job sharing with another employee. As mentioned in our previous article, flexible working is no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have for candidates and it is a top priority especially for parents who have to juggle competing demands of work and home life.
However, offering flexible working is only half the story. Research from Timewise found that only 22% of ‘quality jobs’ (which they define as permanent and paying £20,000 or more per year) are advertised as flexible and there is a clear lack of transparency about potential flexible working options. As a result, quality and well-suited candidates can either not find suitable vacancies or they need to actively ask for flexibility which creates its own problems. The Equality and Human Rights Commission conducted research that suggests 2 in 5 women will avoid bringing up flexibility because they are worried it will negatively impact their chances of being hired, leading to them either having to miss out on the job or feel dissatisfied in their job due to the stress of having to manage work and home commitments.
This shows that if we are to find and attract women back into the industry it is imperative to explain what flexibility is available from the outset by making it clear in the job description. This will help to avoid missing out on the best potential talent.
The UK has been ranked the second most expensive country for childcare costs, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), meaning that parents face a huge monetary burden when considering returning to work. By providing on-site daycare or subsidies for childcare, employers can make themselves stand out from the competition and attract the best candidates.
Not only do subsidies and on-site daycare show that employers value their workers' families and commitments outside of the workplace, but such arrangements can help create a more positive office environment for everyone. Additionally, employers can often benefit from improved productivity associated with childcare initiatives, since they enable employees to remain focused while working with the peace of mind that their children are nearby and well taken care of. A win-win for everyone.
Implementing any of the above initiatives will certainly help to create a family-friendly culture but fundamentally employers need to first and foremost ensure that they cultivate an environment where parents feel accepted and supported rather than judged or alienated. Those water-cooler moments that organically come about in the office - like tea breaks, birthday celebrations, team lunches - help to foster a sense of community. But for those who work shorter days, shorter weeks or remotely it can be harder to feel part of the bigger picture so employers should consider hosting events for employees, on and offline. Events could even be family-friendly events where kids are also invited, like summer picnics.
Another idea might be to ban end-of-day meetings. For many parents it is difficult to attend late afternoon meetings as this is when their childcare support finishes so rather than adding any additional stress or spinning plates to their day, employers can make a rule that any meetings need to happen before 3pm, for example. This doesn’t cost the employer anything and it makes the employee feel seen and supported.
There is no doubt return-to-work parents offer a wealth of experience, maturity and a fresh perspective. By hiring returners an employer is able to tackle skills shortages, improve gender and age diversity and tap into a high-quality talent pool. Whether integrating a returnship programme, a flexible working environment or childcare benefits, employers can create an inclusive culture where employees feel welcomed as working parents and help to make it easier for them to manage their lives while still pursuing their career goals.