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Planning a Re-entry to the Workplace?

What astronauts can teach you about returning to work

As any astronaut will tell you, launching into space is the easy part. The difficult bit is re-entry. Returning to earth is much more tricky. So much can go wrong, as Sandra Bullock found out to her cost in the movie Gravity.

Leaving a job – taking a career break – whilst emotionally difficult, is actually relatively straighforward from a practical perspective. The same cannot be said of a return to work. So what are the lessons from space travel?

  1. Atmospheric entry can either be uncontrolled – meteors falling to earth, for example – or controlled, such as the re-entry of a spacecraft, capable of being navigated and supported in its journey. No prizes for guessing which one of these is more successful.

When you are returning after a career break, you need a plan and you need support. You’ve been operating in a different atmosphere. With a different schedule, different rules and a different measure of what “success” looks like. Like any good plan it needs to be funded, time-bound, with specific actions and clarity around the support you are going to need.

2. Astronauts have to navigate the right path back to earth

Spaceships can’t just pick any route home. Space is full of all sorts of dangerous objects. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock found herself totally detached from the shuttle that had got her into space and eventually had to find a Chinese capsule to take her back.

When you are thinking about returning to work after a career break, the route back is often not straightforward either. You may need flexibility, which the employer you left is not prepared to offer. You may actually want a change of direction, building on skills and experience gained in your break.

Evidence She’s Back is gathering from those who have successfully returned to work – Are you back? – suggests that traditional recruitment channels – recruitment agencies, jobs boards, headhunters & the like – do not work well for people returning from a career break. The over reliance on job specs, CVs & automated selection systems often mean the people with a “gap” on their CV are overlooked.

What does work well? Word of mouth and contacts. So navigate your way back by being clear about what you want, what you excel at and the value you can add. And work those contacts.

Organisations which want to find and recruit people like you need to rethink and retailer their recruitment processes, but that’s another story.

3. A spaceship has to re-enter the earth at a certain angle or it will bounce into space and never be seen again.

Spaceships slow down significantly from their extreme orbit speed as they prepare for re-entry. They also have to adopt a different position as they descend through the atmosphere. They change shape, it takes time.

When you have been a full time carer, even if you have also been doing voluntary work or running your own business, a transition back to the workplace takes preparation and time. You need to fix things at home so that everyone around you is set up to help you succeed. The things you were doing at home are not going to go away. So who is going to step up and help? It could be about getting more domestic help, it could be about your children or partner stepping up to the plate. Just make sure you don’t bounce back simply because your new workload is just not manageable.

4. Astronauts are supported by a huge team on the ground.

Many companies say they are keen to hire more experienced women. So how do you figure out which ones really mean it? The ones that are prepared to support you. Who recognise that this is a transition and that you may need some support. Not just with the technical training involved but also in navigating the politics, networks and the “unwritten rules” around how things work.

Just as importantly, though, the team on the ground at NASA recognise that the astronaut is returning with some immensely valuable skills and experience. Skills and experience that they could not have gathered in their labs. Is this true of the company you are about to join? Do they value the different perspective you bring? The skills, knowledge and experience that you have gained during your career break?

5. It takes time for Astronauts to readjust to earth

Astronauts returning from the International Space Station have to go through a 45 day reconditioning programme. Canadian Chris Hadfield even wrote about having to learn to talk again after months of speaking with a weightless tongue.

That’s why smart organisations offer tailored on boarding, training and coaching programmes for people returning after a significant career break. Formal returnship programmes are one way of addressing this but they are not the only way. Specialist recruiters are beginning to work with coaches to offer tailored search, recruitment and on boarding processes that help companies cover these needs.

The message for anyone returning? Give yourself time and make sure you identify exactly what training and support you need. It might be a coach but equally it could be finding a young mentor who would also benefit from learning from your wisdom and experience.

So back to Sandra. Here she is at the end of Gravity. Her re-entry has been quite an ordeal. The question is what does she do next ….

Footnote: We would love to hear from you if you have made a successful return to work following a career break. Our ongoing survey can be accessed here

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