Welcome back: How Virgin Media is making returning to work easier for parents

A mum tries to work at a kitchen table with a young child on her lap
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Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
3 March 2021

Returning to work after having a child is never easy, and for parents coming back in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s been even more challenging. Virgin Media is on a mission to change this reality, and smooth the path for those returning from family leave. We caught up with Katie Buchanan, the brand’s head of sustainability who has first-hand experience of the issue after returning from maternity leave mid-pandemic.

“When I returned last year, we were in a lockdown and everyone was scrambling around trying to work out how we get through,” Katie said. “It’s hard to connect virtually – we’re all used to it now of course – but when you’ve been out of the business for the best part of a year, it’s hard to reconnect. 

“So I set about talking to other people who were returning at the same time as me, and they had the same frustrations as me – issues with the IT process, not being able to find information,” she continued.“It felt like it wasn’t rocket science to get it right, but there were a lot of issues that if we didn’t fix them properly then the next person coming along was going to get a bad experience, too.” 

A dad working from home with a baby on his lap
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Katie spoke to other parents from different departments at Virgin Media to find out what their experiences had been. Then, along with a working group of five other colleagues, she liaised with Virgin Media’s People Team on measures to bring about positive change.

“The People Team had already identified that things needed to change, and they were working on things in the background – changing the way that things were logged in the system, tweaking the policies,” Katie explained. “But I knew that was going to take months and we had to balance that long-term work with some immediate changes.”

There are four main changes that Katie and her team are working on:

  • An interactive tool to help line managers and returners to have better conversations

  • A timeline that shows the steps that employees will typically encounter when they’re going on family leave

  • A welcome back box filled with thoughtful goodies

  • A podcast that allows people to stay updated on the business while they’re on family leave, if they want to

Fully inclusive

Everyone who returns to work at Virgin Media after family leave receives a box packed with things to make the adjustment a little bit easier. In the box there are snacks, a voucher for Just Eat, a family diary to help things run more smoothly, products such as scented candles to help people de-stress and more. 

“We’ve worked really hard to make sure that it’s all fully inclusive,” Katie said. “At Virgin Media we're going through this equity sequencing training, which really helps you to make sure that you're coming at anything that you're working on with equity in mind, making sure that it's fully inclusive.

“Originally, we had some really nice, original designs for the box that said things like ‘The mother of all comebacks’ and ‘Daddy cool’, and the branding was amazing. It was very punchy, very Virgin. But then we took a step back and decided it was a bit too gender-specific. 

“While it's important that people want to identify as a mum or a dad, we also know that all families are different. We took a step back and did a bit of a U-turn on it,” Katie added. “We've made it fully inclusive. It's one of the first projects at Virgin Media that has the equity sequencing baked in. We've just called it family leave, we're not talking about maternity, paternity or adoption leave, we're talking about it as family leave and a lot of what has been designed has that in mind.”

The team has even made sure that the box is suitable for all kinds of situations – meaning that it wouldn’t be insensitive in situations where an employee has had a stillbirth, for example. “We've put a lot of thought into the contents of the box and the style of the box to make sure that it's completely inclusive. We had to make sure that there’s nothing in the box that would jar with anyone,” Katie said. “I think that’s why it’s gone down so well with people.”

Time out to find out

Next on Katie’s list is launching the podcast for people currently on family leave. Called ‘Time out to find out’, the podcast has been created by returners for returners to help bring them up to speed with what’s happened in the business while they’ve been away. 

The podcast has come about as a result of Katie’s own experience. “I found that while I was on leave I actually wanted to stay engaged with what was going on in the business,” she said. “I love my job, I love the brand and although I was going off for 10 months, I wanted to stay connected.

A mum working from home, holding a baby while an older child sits next to her at a table
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“While I was on family leave, my father-in-law mentioned some big Virgin Media news, and asked my opinion on it. But I didn’t know about it because I hadn’t thought to check the newspapers and my line manager hadn’t mentioned it. I felt quite embarrassed that I wasn’t up to speed with what was going on.”

The podcast is designed to help out other parents with a bi-monthly update of everything that’s happening at Virgin Media. “We know that some people will go off on family leave and not want to know anything, while others want to keep in the know,” Katie said. “The podcast is designed so that you can choose whether you want to listen or not. You can switch it on while you’re out with the pram, or while you’re up doing a night feed. Or you could not listen at all, and that’s totally cool.”

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