After a boss or coworker is out of the office for an extended period such as maternity leave, you play a role in their transition back to work. After all, work has gone on without them. Decisions have been made, issues resolved, and your project, product, or service is in a different place than when they left. How do you get them up to speed on everything that has been happening in their absence?

The short answer is: let them set the pace--at first.

Everyone has a different routine when they're out of the office. They get used to responding to a different set of demands and stressors. These must be readjusted when they're back at their desk. Often, we figure that people with whom we've worked before will jump right back in because they're already familiar with the people and processes. But after an absence, many people coming back feel in some ways like a different person. They need a brief transition period to figure out a new schedule, add in new responsibilities, and adjust their priorities. The mental shifts that happen after a major life change like the addition of a child take months--if not years for some.

However, the logistics should be figured out much faster. Most people are back in the swing of things somewhere in the middle of the second week back in the office. This assumes that daycare, drop-offs, bottle feeding and so on are going smoothly and no medical issues have come up, in the case of a new baby.

Awareness of these transition challenges isn't the whole picture though. As a team member welcoming a boss or coworker back to the office, there are a couple of things you might be thinking and feeling.

  • You might be anxious to fill them in on gossip and drama.
  • You might be itching to rekindle your strong professional relationship and tap back into their guidance.
  • You might be proud of the work done in their absence and fear that it'll be "messed up" by someone awkwardly reinserting themself.
  • You might have enjoyed taking on more senior responsibilities and resent those being taken away upon their return.
  • Or you might be feeling any combination of complex emotions.

Whatever your state of mind, no one wants a returning boss or coworker (regardless of how beloved) to swoop in and disrupt progress. Instead, you want your boss to reintegrate seamlessly without second-guessing the decisions made while they were gone. You also want them to be appreciative and acknowledge the work accomplished in the interim.

While many leaders are sensitive to their team's dynamics, not all are. So, hearing "thank you" and "how can I help" may not always happen.

  • They might have some legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.
  • They might be exhausted and struggle to put two coherent sentences together.
  • They might be navigating a changing relationship at home with their spouse.
  • They might be grappling with big questions about their future and how their aspirations have changed.
  • And, one of the most difficult to overcome? They might have control issues and subtly (or overtly) suggest that everything has fallen apart without their daily infusion of wisdom.

I personally have an incredibly low tolerance for control issues--maybe because I have a mountain of them myself. So, I don't have much patience with a boss or coworker barging in and tossing around veiled insults by overturning decisions made without them. Anyone insisting on taking a group backwards to where "they" left off lacks self-awareness and esteem.

If you're a mom returning to work after having a baby and this sounds vaguely familiar, I'd encourage you to think about this before bungling your transition back to work: Manage yourself and your stuff. Do not expect anyone else to work around you, your emotions, or your evolving needs. Please don't suggest that you've just given a gift to the universe and deserve something in return. Instead, figure out your situation, your schedule, and what you need to do now to fulfill your role. Then, draw your boundaries, don't apologize for them, and accept the benefits and ramifications of your decisions.

Transitions in and out of work are tricky for both the individual and the rest of the team. Being aware of the thoughts and feelings on both sides of the equation can help you understand and manage your response. Both parties would be well served by a generous dose of patience and understanding as you piece your normal work schedules back together.

Here's a video from me with more on this topic of transitions back into the office after extended leave.

Published on: May 15, 2017
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