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Returning to work after a career break in three easy steps

Whether your hiatus is down to travel, relocation or maternity leave, returning to a nine-to-five job can be a scary business

Image Credit: Getty Images
“If the last time you strutted your stuff in the boardroom was when wedges were justsomething you ate with mayo, chances are your closet is crying out for a professional makeover”

Remember your first day at school? Multiply those nerves by 1,000 and you’re half way there. “My first day back at work was terrifying,” recalls Kate Kelly*, a PR manager from the UK. Having left her full-time job in 2004 following the birth of her first baby, Kate decided to make a career comeback seven years later in 2011.

“I’d been out of work for a number of years when I decided the time was right to return to a full-time job,” recalls the mum of three. “It was a daunting prospect. While I’d kept my eye in with freelance work, I hadn’t so much as used a photocopier, let alone attended a meeting, in almost seven years. I was filled with fear.”

A year and a half later, Kate’s glad she made the leap, but concedes it wasn’t all plain sailing. “The first few months were tough,” she remembers. “A lot had happened since I was last in a professional role and in addition to learning new strategies, everything from email systems to office dress codes seemed completely alien to me.” Fortunately a lot of stay-at-home-mum skills such as initiative, adaptability and organisation came in handy, and she’s never looked back.

Kate’s break was a lengthy one, but even returning to work after a matter of months can be a daunting prospect. Worrying that your skills and experience have deserted you is quite normal, but it’s important to keep those fears in check. Whether you’re worried about finding a new job, advancing technology or which look to rock on the office floor, we’ve got it covered.

1. Dress to impress
If the last time you strutted your stuff in a boardroom was when wedges were just something to eat with mayo, chances are your closet is crying out for a professional makeover. Natalie Trevis, stylist and owner of Stylephiles ( shares her advice. If you lack work attire, the best plan of action is to start building a capsule wardrobe of pieces that can be mixed and matched in order to create multiple outfits. Pick one or two basic colours such as grey and navy (more interesting than black) and add pops of colour with tops and jackets in blue, white and teal to add interest to your outfits.

Recycling clothes when you’re at home is fine, but in an office you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. With clever styling, ten key pieces are enough to see you through a couple of weeks of work without having to reuse the same look. Shoes (and accessories in general) are important for finishing off your work look. Heels will always give you a more elegant and put-together style, a pointed-toe court shoe, for example, is business-like yet still a little edgy.

If you can’t bear a heel for your full working day, consider a block heel or a wedge for extra comfort. Smart flats can also be a chic option, but flip-flops are a no-go! Unless you work in a formal corporate environment such as a bank or legal firm, it’s not really necessary to have a wardrobe bursting with dark suits. It’s possible to look business-like while still displaying your personality. Consider a blazer with an interesting cut or detailing such as a bracelet sleeve, teamed with a pair of slim-fit trousers in a different colour.

Grooming is absolutely essential when it comes to your office look. Clean, shiny hair and barely there make-up will complement your new wardrobe perfectly. Even on bad hair days, make an effort to put your hair up in a slick ponytail, and when you’re tired at the end of the week, a little bronzer and a brighter lip colour will work wonders to keep you looking polished. Don’t equate smart with boring. Mix an up-to-date colour such as mustard or burgundy with staple shades of grey, navy or tan.

Also, play with accessories such as shoes and handbags or add touches of interesting fabric, such as chunky knits or leather. Have fun. Office wear certainly isn’t as trend driven as other areas of fashion, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the latest looks when it comes to your work attire. Tailoring varies each season. For example, in recent years we’ve gone from the ‘boyfriend’ blazer to tweed, to the tuxedo (and plenty in between) and all of these can be incorporated into your office wear.

2. Get tech savvy
Technology moves at a rate of knots, so whether your career break has been for six months or six years, there’s always room for improvement when it comes to tech know-how. Ulrika Hedlund is the co-founder and managing director of Business Productivity ( Here she shares her tech wisdom.

The number of emails you receive today compared with ten years ago will overwhelm you if you don’t take control of your inbox. So it’s vital you master the communication programmes used at your new workplace. Many companies use Microsoft Outlook for email and it’s common to find unified communication programmes like Skype or Microsoft Lync for instant messaging, phone calls and video conferences. Learn how you can use these to communicate and collaborate with your colleagues.

Connect your mobile phone. In today’s mobile world, it’s imperative to have access to important information – such as your contacts, your calendar and your email – directly from your mobile. Whether you use a BlackBerry, iPhone or a different smartphone, make sure you find out how to connect it to your company’s IT system to access this information.

Find out what IT programmes your company uses and swot up before your first day. Most still use Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint. Make sure you are at ease with these so you don’t panic if your boss asks you to send over a spreadsheet with your proposed budget. We offer tutorial videos on our website for all of these programmes and more.

3. Be professional
Even with a wealth of experience and a show-stopping CV, finding a job after a lengthy stint out of work can prove tricky. Louisa Coates, career coach and director of Davos Consulting (, talks us through finding your dream job, getting it and keeping it.  If you’re new to a city and looking for a role, I recommend joining social groups and networks, as well as the gym. It’s amazing who you meet and what tips people will share.

Similarly, chat to everyone at parties and events. Talking to people about their jobs might give you some ideas about the sort of work available and what opportunities might be suited to your skillset. If you’ve been out of work for a long time, embrace your fear. Set yourself a challenge to do one ‘scary career thing’ a day. It could be contacting a former boss, joining a business network or signing up for a social media site.

Offer your services for free for a month (like an internship) with companies you’d like to work for. You may get the offer of a paid job at the end, but even if that isn’t on the cards, you’ll gain a lot in terms of experience and prove that you’re keen to learn and try new things. Be prepared to do almost any job to get back into working mode and show that you’re willing. I have one friend in the UK who worked at a post office sorting mail over the festive period and another who took part-time work in a shop in Dubai.

Both have gained a lot of confidence and energy and have up-to-date examples of work on their CVs, in addition to good experience to talk about when interviewing for jobs.  If you’re returning to work after maternity leave, bear in mind that not everyone is baby besotted. Colleagues just want to know that your mind is in gear for work again.

Your boss may wonder if you’re still prepared to do the hours and show the same commitment, so talk to her and be upfront about how you want things to work. Communication is really important.  Be ready for a period of adjustment. It will probably take you longer than you think to feel part of it all again. Give yourself at least two months.

*Name changed