In a nutshell?  “Ask don't assume, encourage Keep In Touch days and demonstrate your commitment to helping your colleague have a smooth return."

1. Be inclusive and send signals you're looking forward to your colleague's return

Send invitations to major strategic announcements, away days, team lunches and any other activity your colleague has said she’s interested in and underline that you know her head may well be in another space entirely and it’s acceptable not to respond to your contact. Send your leaver a personal card during the break to remind him/her that you’re looking forward to them coming back. You might also send a copy of Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work by Jessica Chivers (Hay House, 2011) to reinforce the message: ‘I want you back.’ This isn’t a replacement for the formal process of managing a maternity leave, it’s one human being reassuring another in a possibly difficult and uncertain time. Your tone is important - an email with the subject header 'Hitting the ground running' probably won't do much to reassure your colleague.

Do Say “I hope everything is going OK. (My experiences of becoming a parent were....) We're missing your.... You might be interested to know.... Would you like to join the team at X - it would be great to see you if only for a part of it...”

"Regular communication throughout maternity, both from the firm on a formal basis and from the team on an informal basis. This ensures you don't feel forgotten. It was small things that made a big difference to making me feel valued - I was invited to the team Christmas lunch/division night out whilst most other mums I knew on mat leave were left out of this. I was also sent a Christmas card and gift from my line manager. Again, this helped me feel like I was still part of the team as I wasn't forgotten. My line manager also arranged an informal coffee for the whole team to take time out of the office to meet me and my daughter for a catch-up. This was very relaxed and helped make me feel that I wanted to return to work with them all!"

Kate Gillies, solicitor, Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP

"Line managers need to be positive and supportive and ensure that they have factored in your return and have work allocated to you so that employees returning to work feel valued and their return was anticipated. I have been incredibly lucky and I know that's not the case for everyone. We have quite a few working parents in our team and a general acceptance that we all need to be flexible to make the arrangements work. My bosses have always been very supportive and, provided the job gets done, are happy for this to be flexible. It's crucial to show that when you need to put in the extra hours, you are still committed and will do so - setting a good example to more junior colleagues and giving the partners comfort that you remain a reliable resource and contact for clients."

Fiona Scott, senior associate, CMS Cameron McKenna

"Treat you as if you are starting a new job - ie be nice (!), suggest a lunch to get to know new people in the team, IT refresh, steady increase in work in line with confidence and speed."

Sarah Washbrook, solicitor, Gateley LLP

"Many people get the Sunday evening ‘fear’ about returning to work. That is magnified at the end of a holiday. Most people should understand that. Imagine that having a child, spending much of every waking moment with them for six to 12 months (or more!), seeing them develop from babies to marauding toddlers and then imagine the ‘fear’ of being away from the baby and being back to work. Consider the potential mindset of the mum who is returning – she probably hasn’t left the baby alone for more than a few hours or a day at most, she’ll be worrying about nursery, whether the child is sleeping and eating, and she’ll be worrying that she’ll be missing out on all sorts of developments. Remember that she may well be feeling enormously guilty. So be sensitive. Sure it is great to have her back but if you mess this up you won’t keep her."

Solicitor, private practice

2. Share positive feedback

Share praise or give recognition whilst your colleague is away for things she has contributed to, such as client feedback, internal stakeholder comments, a successful launch of a process/initiative she was involved in. Equally, when your colleague has returned, regularly remind her of strengths and point to times you’ve seen them in action. Suggest new ways she could use them to give her a stretch and get closer to any career aspirations shared with you.

"Be understanding that there are added pressures on someone with a young family and that just because they’re not working late, they are probably working harder during the day than many of the young single ones."

Susanne McGraw, solicitor, private practice

"A phased transition can help. What is really important, though, is to remember that someone who has not worked for a year can lose their confidence. Give them familiar work - their files/clients back and make sure that are supported and praised to regain their confidence."

Alison Stuart, lecturer, RGU

"I was included in an email thanking the team for work on a matter that resolved successfully while I was off as I had contributed to it before going on maternity leave. I was also given a pay rise whilst on maternity leave. This made me feel that I wasn't being discriminated against for being off."

Kate Gillies, solicitor, Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP

3. Discuss and be open to flexible working

Employees who work flexibly are, on average, more committed to the organisation than other employees who don’t ‘benefit’ from such arrangements (see Kelliher & Anderson, 2010). Other research shows those who work flexibly feel grateful and also the need to reciprocate through working harder. A study by Catalyst (2013) found that women in organisations that offer flexible working are 30% more likely to aspire to high-level positions than those at organisations that do not offer flexible ways of working. By highlighting this type of research, you're sowing the seeds to win over a line manager who may be otherwise reluctant to support flexible working.

"The firm should make it clear to its employees that they are family-friendly and want to help where possible. Employees shouldn't feel afraid to approach the practice manager or partners for fear of reprisals or that any such request may hinder their career prospects."

Karen Wilkie, solicitor, Peterkins

"My line manager was accepting and encouraging of my flex working requests, and in general about my return from mat leave, which made it easier to return to work without being stressed about the transition or if it would be difficult to get back into. I can imagine having a manager who was dismissive of considering flex requests, or generally discouraging about working parents/flex working patterns, would have made me much more nervous about returning to work. I was also given a few ‘easy’ transactions to handle after I got back, but I am not sure if that was intentional! It did help me build up my confidence again though, and ease me back into the full swing of things."

Jenny Allan, senior associate, CMS Cameron McKenna

"The employment relationship should be one of mutual trust and confidence. In our smaller rural firm, we are fortunate that this is the reality, as I know all our staff and solicitors well enough to know I can trust them, and have enough confidence in their integrity to, for example, be happy for them to work from home."

Ian Rodger, solicitor, Williamson and Henry

"I have been very lucky. My employers have always shown understanding and allowed a degree of flexibility regarding my children and, in return, I try not to abuse this and pay back their understanding by working more during busy periods, and as and when I can."

Lindsay Anderson, solicitor, Stewart and Watson

"Ultimately, line managers just have to understand their staff and know what will best support their circumstances. In my case, at a time when flexible working was very new, my managers were willing to let me try it and supported me at board level in order to allow me to do it. I am hugely grateful that they stuck their neck out for me and I hope that my loyalty and figures since have proved them right. By far the best thing about their attitude however was that nothing changed. I was still a respected colleague who was trusted with client responsibility and high quality work and I was left to manage client and work relationships within my new working arrangement. If I work extra one week to deal with an urgent deadline, I am urged to take time off in lieu to make up for it."

Carolyn Burns, director, Maclay, Murray and Spens LLP

"1. Be flexible (not easy if other team members resent the returner getting special treatment but maybe you need to think about flexibility for other workers too - law firms generally are pretty inflexible compared to the general corporate world, eg around office hours). 2. Be knowledgeable, eg it is commonplace when a woman returns to work and puts her child in nursery for the child to get sick a few times in the early weeks. This does not mean that the employee is doomed to be a poor attender - it's a natural transitional issue that will settle down. 3. Be positive - staff retention is important. You are getting back an employee who will probably value a settled employment status more than your other employees and who will be more loyal. They may be prepared to take a more flexible role that enables you to work in a more agile, effective and profitable way. Think about how the new arrangement can benefit and bring value instead of resenting the fact that he or she won't be there for a particular day(s) of the week. And bear in mind this person is probably taking a salary cut whilst their expenses are going up!"

Joanna Clark, solicitor, DLA Piper LLP

What the law says about flexible working
  • Since 30 June 2014, all employees who have worked for the same employer for 26 weeks have had the right to request flexible working  (previously just parents and carers).
  • The right to request does not mean the right to have requests granted - it means employers must handle requests in a 'reasonable manner.' A reasonable manner includes assessing the advantages and disadvantages of granting a request.
  • An employee can only make one flexible working request per year and a decision must be given by the employer within three months of a submission (or longer if agreed).
  • The application must include: the date; a statement that this is a statutory request; details of how the person wants to work flexibly and when s/he would like to start; an explanation of how s/he thinks flexible working might affect the business and how this could be dealt with; and, a statement saying if and when s/he has made a previous application.
Types of flexible working
  • Part-time hours
  • Compressed hours
  • Annualised hours
  • Working from home/remotely
  • Term-time working only
  • Different hours during term-time and school holidays
  • Guaranteed time off in school holidays
  • Staggered hours, eg coming in 'early' and leaving 'early'
  • Specifically timed lunch break
  • Working from home when a child is ill
  • Different hours on different days or under certain circumstances
4. Consider comeback coaching

Women who engage in strengths-based coaching with a coach skilled in career transitions report feeling more confident, better able to manage upwards and clearer on what they can do to effect a smooth return to work than those that don't. Coaching time allows your colleague to talk about their life in the round and create solutions to personal and professional challenges that are not always comfortably discussed with a line manager. Where once coaching was seen as remedial, coaching is now viewed by many people who are coached as evidence of their company's belief in, and willingness to invest in, their development (Skiffington and Zeus, 2003). Does your company offer this? Do you offer out-placement coaching? If you offer the latter but not the former, that's a good basis on which to talk to HR about comeback coaching - better to plough money into helping someone who's staying in the organisation than someone who isn't.

5. Adopt a transition mindset

If you've not already talked to your team member about her return to work being period of transition (perhaps on a KIT day, for example), it's good to talk about this on day one of her return. Transition simply means a period of adjustment where your expectations of her are different (more leeway, less demands made of her, time spent on different things to business as usual for a number of weeks. (four to six is probably about right). Some organisations have formal transition policies - for example, employees at one law firm who are returning from maternity leave have a 50% reduction in their targets for the four weeks before they leave and the four weeks after they return.

"A proper briefing note of active matters for returnee. Making sure the employee leaves on time, make sure they have proper administrative support, tells clients their favourite assistant is back and keen to work. Be supportive if they have to leave because of childcare/illness."

Kate Temple, solicitor, public sector

"My secondment turned out to be very enjoyable and prompted me to have a total rethink of my career but at the time that it was raised with me, it caused a great deal of anxiety. I do not think that sending a newly returned employee on a secondment straight from maternity leave is a sensible or sensitive thing to do. I would have liked to have returned to my familiar role and gradually settled back in with a phased handover of case work. Some contact in the run-up to discuss arrangements and make plans would also have been helpful. It may sound corny but the key is to make the employee feel that they are wanted back and they still have a role. My former employer wasn't very good at keeping in touch or dealing with return, with the result that my return from maternity leave was a very fraught and anxious experience. It is an emotional time being apart from your child for the first time, there is a lot of guilt around leaving them at nursery and anxiety about whether or not you can even remember how to do your job. Employers need to take that into consideration. Parents do not just transition from being at home caring for their child one day to being 100% back to normal ready to work all the hours under the sun just as they did pre-child the next."

Solicitor, Scottish Government

"Give them time to adjust but also time to check things. One's confidence can be knocked before coming back to work. Also, saying that the person has been missed and that you are glad they are back! A hot cup of coffee on the desk is a welcome sight!"

Clare Davey, solicitor, JWK Legal Group Limited

"Allow phase back, positive encouragement and re-affirmation of the person's ability. It would be helpful if partners understood that babies get sick when they first start at nursery and that time off may be required to cope with this if there is no other support available. Not everyone has grandparents who can/will help. I got a row for having to take time off (which I took as holiday) when my baby was ill twice in the first two weeks of me returning."

Claire Whyte, solicitor, RBS