The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is a unique working environment in many ways. One factor is that its staff are more likely to want to take long periods of time out to move, as extended childcare leave, or to work for other organisations, because of the FCO’s global nature.
To enable this the FCO has offered special unpaid leave (SUPL) for many years, which allows five years of leave (or 10 years for childcare) with employment held open. The organisation recently discovered, however, that many employees weren’t confident in their ability to interview for specific roles upon return.
“When you’re on SUPL you lose your security clearance, which means you can’t pop into the office and have coffee with people; you lose all your email accounts and so lose your contact with the office very easily,” says Victoria Billing, deputy head of the FCO’s Mediterranean department.
To tackle this the organisation launched a pilot scheme in 2013 to offer project work to those people on SUPL. Heading up the scheme was Billing, a SUPL employee herself.
“When I went on maternity leave I had just finished in Jerusalem, so at the end of that leave I was looking at not only coming back to work after my first baby, but having not worked in London for several years,” she says. “Then I went on an extended period of SUPL, by which point I’d been out of London for 10 years. The combination of all of that was really quite overwhelming.”
Other SUPL pilot projects have included assisting a training programme tendering process, and helping with World War One centenary commemoration projects. The onus was squarely on choice, with SUPL employees free to take on as much or as little as they wanted, and to work flexibly and remotely.
The results have been strong. Of the 40 people on the pilot three have now returned, one is returning shortly, and eight have gone from unsure about coming back to definitely wanting to.
“This scheme is very much part of a changing mindset within the FCO,” says Matthew Lownds, deputy head of Project Task Force. “It’s seeing your staff on SUPL as a real source of expertise to help deal with organisational overstretch when public services are under huge resource pressures.
"We’ve got this group of people we’ve invested a lot of time and money in. Just because they’re outside full-time work doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to tap into that resource.”