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Covid and the rise of the boomerang employee

Boomerang employees, or people who return to an organisation after working elsewhere or taking a break, can prove advantageous to the work culture

The pandemic has seen a rise in boomerang employees, a term for those returning to organisations they worked at earlier
The pandemic has seen a rise in boomerang employees, a term for those returning to organisations they worked at earlier (iStockphoto)

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Gaurang Menon (41) started a new job in March 2022—but the word new may be slightly inaccurate. Menon rejoined BC Web Wise, a Mumbai-based digital marketing agency, as chief creative officer after previously working with them between 2005 and 2008. There is a comfort in returning to familiar territory as well as excitement and novelty about new brands the company is partnering with since he last worked there. When he was looking to move on from the startup he was at in 2021 and 2022, a conversation with his ex-boss, the founder of BC Web Wise, led to an offer to return, and Menon agreed.

“The pandemic definitely influenced my decision to move on from my old job, where I was dissatisfied. Going back to a former workplace was not part of the plan, but it has been a happy return. Since we are still working from home, it has been easy to adapt to an organisation with which I was already familiar,” says Gurugram-based Menon.

Returning to former employers or workplaces is not unusual or new, yet the pandemic has seen a rise in boomerang employees, a term for those returning to organisations they worked at earlier. Most of these returning employees left on positive terms—family obligations, moving locations or expired contracts being the main reasons they parted ways. The way we work has been noticeably impacted by the pandemic with many employees worldwide resigning from their jobs during 2021, a phenomenon referred to as the Great Resignation.

Some of the reasons people gave before they left were these: prevailing uncertainty, companies’ lack of empathy for employees in an altered work environment, burnout from stress and long hours, and a reassessment of priorities, which include a better work-life balance and a positive work environment. For others, moving on meant finding a better job and better opportunities.

An MIT Sloan study found that more than 24 million people in the US quit their jobs between April 2021 and September 2021. India may not have caught up to those figures yet, but in industries like IT, there was a high attrition rate in 2021, with employees resigning in search of better opportunities leading to a hiring drive in Indian IT firms the following year.

Some of this has translated into embracing the familiar at a time of uncertainty, prompting people to return to former workplaces.

Embracing comfort

“With the familiar environment and the offer of a new and exciting growth prospect, my decision to boomerang was easy,” says Disha Gupta (30), deputy manager of campus relations at HCL Technologies Ltd., in Noida. She returned in April 2022. She had worked there between 2015 and 2018 as a management trainee. Gupta initially left when she shifted to Gurugram for personal reasons and decided to work in different industries and acquire new skills. During the pandemic, she and her spouse shifted back to Noida as she was working from home. “I was in touch with my previous HCL manager, who told me about an opening in his new team, which sounded exciting. We met to discuss it, and before I knew it, I had accepted it,” she says.

For others, the grass is not always greener on the other side, their time away convincing them of the favourableness of a former company.

Neha Arora (32) left the international development agency she worked with from 2014 to 2018 when her contract ended, returning four years later in February 2022 as a senior executive associate. “

I worked with another development agency in between. But the remuneration and work culture was not really what I wanted, and there was no motivation to outperform,” says Delhi-based Arora.

With technology keeping connections alive, former coworkers often stay in touch, allowing both companies and ex-employees to explore renewed opportunities.

Dr Anisha Madhukar (47) worked at a K-12 urban school in Noida between 2015 and 2017. After a two-year break, during which the school management and she were in touch, Madhukar returned in 2019 as head of the business and enterprise department. Since then, she has noticed that other former staff members have also been returning.

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Several companies are actively reaching out to ex-employees. “I left the corporate world some time ago, but I have noticed an overture from the finance and technology companies with which I worked to pull in ex-employees through their alumni network,” says Madhukar.

The good and the bad

“In my opinion, the main advantages for a company to rehire former employees is their relatively faster speed and sharp learning curve; their familiarity with the organisation and culture; and their ability to begin contributing quickly, as opposed to a new hire. Additionally, the company’s investment in recruitment, training and development will be comparatively lower,” says Gupta.

While requisite skills and experience are important, finding employees who are a good fit for the company’s culture is essential. “Working with a ‘known devil’ is advantageous for both company and employee with a fair amount of understanding that both bring to the table,” says Madhukar, “You can train skills, but need someone who fits with the culture and values of the company.”

Menon previously worked as a copywriter on the team and has now returned as the chief creative officer, feeling great pride in this journey. But he is aware of the pitfalls for boomerang employees as well. Familiarity may enable faster adaptation, but the employee’s growth after being away for some time changes them. “Everyone grows in their own way, forming opinions, and there can be some rigidity that sets in with experience,” he says.

There is always the risk of the returning person not adapting to the changed dynamics of an organisation. “If the person has not evolved enough, they may be unable to accept these changes,” says Madhukar, adding that reskilling a returning employee also involves a degree of unlearning. “In fast-changing industries, even if an organisation wants you back, the gap in knowledge since you left can impact your efficiency, agility or innovativeness.”

Overconfidence when reentering a space can be detrimental. “This can lead to people taking things for granted,” says Arora. There are, of course, no guarantees that a rehire will be more committed, efficient or adaptable than a new employee. “There is always a risk, but I feel it is advantageous for both parties,” says Menon.

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The pandemic tested companies, and those that proved apathetic and uncaring of their members have pushed them away to where they hope to feel valued and appreciated, including former workplaces. It also zoomed in on the unpredictability of life, leading people to reassess their priorities. “I feel people are returning to former workplaces to strike a better work-life balance and prioritise their health. This balance is easier to achieve when returning to a former workplace which provides a comfort zone where you know what to deliver and how to deliver,” says Arora.

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