What is a secondment and why it can boost your career

Secondments have proven valuable even when they are conducted remotely.

Secondments can be a life-changing opportunity. A secondment - the chance to temporarily work in a different role, department or organisation - can have practical and immediate benefits for both staff and employers.

At a glance

  • A secondment can offer an individual the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and build their skills.
  • Throughout the pandemic, businesses have come to see the value of a secondment program even when it is conducted remotely.
  • Employees participating in secondment programs have reported increased confidence, a greater ability to adapt to change and increased resilience to stress.

During the pandemic, secondments have grown in importance, as companies concentrate on building the skills of their existing staff in order to keep valuable employees in the business or because talent from abroad is unavailable.

“Australia is a popular destination and, over the years, we have been the beneficiary of that, easily attracting people to come and work here, says Catherine Walsh, partner and head of people and culture with PwC Australia. “But COVID-19 has created a whole range of challenges for our resourcing levels and how many qualified people we have available to do the work.”

Secondments have provided a solution for the organisation, while conferring numerous benefits to staff members, as “one of those great stepping stones” at critical points on their career journeys.

“When we have an experience that takes us out of our comfort zone, people grow and develop and learn. We find people come back with greater insight and perspective, and often with greater technical skills,” Walsh says.

One example is Maria Wozny, associate director of infrastructure advisory at PwC Australia, who has been seconded to the team working on South Australia’s flagship contract with Tesla to build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery system.

Wozny says being seconded to another team led her to discover a passion for infrastructure projects she didn’t know she had. It was the difference between “fitting in” and “belonging” in terms of how she felt about her career.

“Across my career, I’ve worked with many different teams, did short-term rotations and long-term secondments. I can definitely see how this helped me figure out what I want to do and how, step by step, it led me closer to this place, where I enjoy my work on a daily basis,” Wozny says.

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Secondments in lockdown

Like all other aspects of business, secondments have been affected by physical distancing and limitations imposed by COVID-19.

However, secondments have proven valuable even when they are conducted remotely.

Westpac’s long-running Jawun Indigenous secondment program transitioned to a virtual model in 2020.

For two decades, about 950 employees have put their hand up to work in Indigenous community organisations on six-week regional, urban and remote secondments.

Cristina Carter, a project manager who has been with Westpac for more than five years, was the first candidate to do the secondment virtually.

“Over nine weeks, I worked from home in Sydney two days a week for Central Coast Aboriginal organisation Barang Regional Alliance, switching back to my day job in the bank’s regulatory team on the other days,” says Carter.

"Secondments have been really successful in giving our people an integrated end-to-end view across the organisation." Susie Mogg, Suncorp

Barang has been central to the New South Wales Government’s Local Decision Making reform program, and it was Carter’s job to support the organisation by providing project management skills, so that the Barang team could finalise its negotiation activities.

Even though Carter had to develop a working relationship with her Barang supervisor over video, she says the bond between them became deep. “It’s remarkable how much I’ve learned from him from my lounge room,” she says.

“Among the key professional development skills I’ve been able to bring back to my day job at Westpac, the power and benefit of authentic acceleration to enhance project delivery is vital – especially in a screen-to-screen working world,” says Carter.

Siobhan Toohill, Westpac’s group head of sustainability, says the secondment program, co-founded by Boston Consulting Group, is seen both as an exchange program and as an Indigenous-led experience.

“Jawun puts forward a brief for the kind of skills they are looking for, and Westpac seeks to match our employees who have expressed an interest in taking part,” says Toohill. Employees must have the right sort of skills, as well as the support of their manager – and this must form part of their development plan.”

For Westpac staff, the secondment experiences to date have been strongly positive. Secondees report a better awareness of Aboriginal culture and a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by Indigenous communities.

From a personal and professional development perspective, employees also say the experience gives them more confidence, a greater ability to adapt and improved resilience when facing a range of stresses.

From narrow to broad

A secondment program need not be formal and organisation-wide to be successful. Smaller organisations can still reap the benefits of secondments done on a smaller scale, such as the one at financial services firm Suncorp.

Susie Mogg, Suncorp’s people and culture manager, says that, although Suncorp does not have a formal secondment program, the company’s secondment policy is a core part of its DNA – “just something that we do every day”.

“If someone has gone on maternity leave or is having a career break, we use that temporary vacancy strategically as a really great opportunity for development and accelerated learning. We may identify someone whose experience is quite narrow. Then, we suggest they might want to move temporarily to another area of the business to expand their knowledge,” says Mogg.

She cites an example of an employee from the insurance claims department who moved into a people and culture role during a parental leave vacancy. Mogg says the experience transformed their view of leadership and how they engage with their team.

The secondment also created a domino effect, with each vacated role creating a new secondment opportunity.

“Secondments have been really successful in giving our people an integrated end-to-end view across the organisation,” says Mogg.

The opportunities also strengthen diversity and inclusion at Suncorp – for example, by helping women gain the experience they need to move up into more challenging and senior roles, she says.

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When the slipper doesn't fit

Secondments are not exempt from occasional challenges and downsides. For example, employees who pitch to be chosen for a secondment but are not selected may feel demotivated. The host department or organisation may feel that the secondee is not the right cultural fit. Or the secondee might have difficulty settling back into their previous role or might not want to return to their employer at all.

There are other negatives, such as a potential productivity drop-off during transition periods and the additional administrative work involved.

Despite this, however, organisations that have embraced secondments argue that these are a small price to pay for a powerful job training tool.

Key questions to ask when setting up a secondment

Set the ground rules
Be very clear on the details – how long is the secondment going to be? Will it be full-time or part-time? What are the logistics and how are they going to be managed? For external secondments, will the secondee continue to be paid by their main employer? Who is responsible for overtime, bonuses, expenses, travel and leave arrangements? What are the budgetary or HR implications? Does the employee’s other work need to be covered while they are on secondment, and if so, how?

Start from a position of care
Ask yourself, are you setting the secondee up for success? Are they ready to take this on from a personal and family point of view? Are they physically safe? What about their mental wellbeing – do they have the right support networks?

Think of the host
Be clear on the benefits the secondee can provide to the host team or organisation. What is the host team or organisation trying to achieve? How can you be responsive to their needs? Do the values align between the secondee and the host team or organisation?

Clarify the role
Take a holistic view of the situation. Is this the right role for the secondee? Do the secondee and the host team or organisation have a clear understanding of the secondment’s purpose and goals?

Link in with HR
Examine the opportunity from the career development point of view. How does the secondment fit into learning and development frameworks? What about the secondee’s career progression?

Make it legally watertight
The secondment must “tick all the boxes” around health and safety and insurance. Are the right policies and procedures in place, particularly when it comes to overseas secondments? What about if circumstances change? What if they decide not to come back to their employer post-secondment? What if they need to cut their secondment short?

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