27/05/03 15:36:23

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Back to the future
(taken from the BT magazine Future Talk)

The world of work can look like a different planet when you've been away for a while. But there's no need to panic, says Sarah Barbour, all it takes is a little preparation……

When her daughter Joanna started secondary school, Rita Murphy decided to go back to work. A 39-year-old former secretary, she was determined to broaden her horizons and improve her standard of living. But she'd lost confidence during the years at home. Would she be able to juggle work and her daughter's needs? And how would she cope with all the latest office technology, when she'd never used a computer in her life?

For anyone who's been out of the workforce for a few years, coming to grips with the lightning speed of technological change isn't easy.

Conquering computers
Fear of technology was a big problem for Rita. "I missed out on computers at school. At work I used an electronic typewriter before leaving to have my daughter".
"The first computer I ever used was in an employment agency. They had a special teaching programme, which showed me the basics. To be honest, I was surprised how simple it was."
"I gained a bit of confidence, which helped me land a permanent job in newspaper sales. They trained me to use their system, but by the end of day two I was in tears. I didn't think I'd ever go back."

As Rita discovered, learning on the job can be a stressful way of getting the hang of new technology. Miranda Newton is another example. A 32-year-old designer, she found returning to work after a three-year break "a nightmare".
"I hadn't realised how much things had moved on. I had to pester colleagues for help and it didn't make me popular. I was very slow and my confidence, already fragile, suffered. It's taken me longer than I expected to find me feet."

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to learn to use computer systems and software outside a pressurised and unfamiliar work environment. Agencies like Manpower, Adecco and Brook Street Bureau all offer software packages which returners can use in their offices to try out keyboard and computer skills, and learn new ones. And temping can be an excellent way of easing back into full-time employment. Learning 'stores' are another way to learn new skills. Run jointly by the University For Industry and the Training and Enterprise Councils, they will be based in railway stations and shopping centres nationwide from autumn 2000, offering anyone the chance to walk in and use a computer, surf the Net or learn computer skills. You can already find computers online in many local libraries, as well as cyber cafes.

The increasing number of technology courses for beginners is good news for the growing number of returners who work from home or set up small businesses. As a freelance or self-employed worker, you may be able to explore new equipment and software at a more leisurely pace, but you won't have the support or in-house training that most companies offer new workers.

Confidence tricks
Christina Blade faced a steep learning curve when her husband was made redundant and the family urgently needed an income. After three years at home with their two children, none of her former 'work' clothes fitted, and her confidence was low.
"I felt like jelly going back, but I had no option," she says. "I started out temping, which gave me a few weeks to adjust to being back in an office and to build up my confidence again. But then a fantastic opportunity came up as PA to the chief executive.
"I was so nervous in the interview I could barely breathe, but I made myself imagine I was cool and confident and it worked. I was absolutely thrilled to get it. At first, I worked silly hours but after a year I had the confidence to renegotiate my contract and now I try to do 9am to 3pm, to fit round school hours. I'm never out of touch with the office as I have a mobile and a PC at home."

Rita also found that doors opened and her self-esteem soared once she was back at work. Today, she works as an administrator in the advertising department of a local newspaper and has just been promoted for the second time in two years.
Not only does she use a computer, she's even customised software to help her work more efficiently. "I've changed a lot, I'm far more outgoing and I'm proud of how far I've come. As for computers, I wouldn't say I was 100 per cent confident, but I'm not frightened any more."

New beginnings
The first few weeks in a new job are always stressful. Everyone around you seems to be calmly getting on with it and you feel flustered when you can't find the coffee machine, let alone the 'Send email' button. New technology has completely changed the culture of business communication and employees are expected to work faster and with less face-to-face interaction. The environment has changed too: open-plan offices ensure high visibility and accessibility. But none of these factors need be daunting - you're not alone, the world is changing so fast the whole population is on a permanent learning curve.

Tips for settling in

1. Positive packaging boosts self-esteem.
Dress simply in clothes that look smart but feel comfortable. Though many offices have relaxed dress codes, a couple of plain well-cut suits in a basic colour will cover all working styles. Keep accessories simple and avoid a look that is fussy or too well co-ordinated. Invest in a good business bag, and carry a sewing kit and spare tights.

2. First impressions are important.
Walk tall and make a good entrance. Spend any spare moments raising your profile around the workplace, introducing yourself and finding out who your co-workers are. Make introductions brief, though, as people are working. Don't lurk by colleagues' desks if they are busy or on the phone, signal that you will come back when things are quieter.

3. Making mistakes is part of the learning process.
So don't keep saying 'sorry' of refer to yourself as 'stupid'. Avoid making negative references to your age, or how much things have changed since you were last employed.

4. Use verbal 'headlines'.
Introduce each topic before going into the discussion - it will make it easier for busy colleagues to 'lock in' to your message. When you listen to information, summarise back to clarify, and take notes. Remember, business jargon is bewildering at first, so if you don't understand, ask.

5. Be friendly and positive.
But don't confide in colleagues too quickly, or be a doormat - rushing to make coffee or take on other people's work. 6 If you don't know how your computer system works, say so. Don't struggle on. If you need computer training, ask for it.

Training up
Returning to work after a long break? Make sure you're prepared. For copies of the BT Future Talk magazine please contact the Women Returners' Network at the following address:

Women Returners' Network
Chelmsford College
Moulsham Street
Chelmsford College
Essex CM2 0JQ
Tel: 01245 263796
Fax: 01245 491712

Email: wrn@grow.org.uk

Details of how to order BT's TalkWorks at work video, which gives practical advice on how to communicate effectively at work, are available on the BT web site www.bt.com/futuretalk

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