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What is a secondment, and is it right for you?

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Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

January 18, 2023

According to Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. While contemporary psychology may offer a slightly different perspective on this statement, it can be an apt measure of the status quo in many organizations — with employees performing the same tasks repeatedly without growth or development. That’s why a secondment is such a powerful tool for identifying and nurturing talent in your company. Never heard of the term before? You’re not alone! 

A secondment is when an employee is temporarily relocated to a different role or department, often for a specific purpose or task. They can be short-term or long-term and may involve new skills training to help the employee develop further. For organizations, secondments are a great way to foster talent from within the business. 

Employees gain valuable insights and experience in different areas, which can be incredibly useful for career development. Meanwhile, businesses benefit by gaining fresh perspectives on customer service, management, and company goals. 

In this article, we’ll look at this rare business training tool and how to get involved. Then we’ll finish up with some tips for managers to help make it work.

What is a secondment?

Secondments are a great way to give your staff the extra training they need to excel in their roles. Not only do they offer an invaluable opportunity to learn on the job, but they also provide exposure to new work environments and cultures

This experience can help employees become more creative problem solvers, better communicators, and more knowledgeable about their roles and industry. 

With the proper management and processes in place, secondments can become a powerful tool for learning, offering employees a unique opportunity to explore new fields and develop in their areas of interest. By exposing staff to different departments, systems, and ways of working, secondments can also help organizations foster an agile and adaptive approach to problem-solving — something that will remain incredibly valuable in the future.

What do secondments look like?

There are a few different types of secondments. Here are the most common:

Cross-departmental secondment

A staff member moves to a different department within their organization for a set period, usually to gain specific training or experience. 

For example, a customer service employee might spend a few weeks with the sales team to gain insights into what customers think when choosing your product or service. Or, a marketing team member might transfer to the manufacturing side of the business to gain in-depth product knowledge. 

International secondment

This is when an employee moves from their home office to another business location abroad. This type of secondment allows employees to work in different countries and cultures while gaining invaluable international experience. 

For example, a sales manager from Australia might transfer to the company’s London office for a few months to learn new skills and better understand the European market.

Short secondment

A short secondment is usually for a defined period, such as one week or month. This type of arrangement can be a great way to give employees quick exposure to different areas of the business to gain specific skills. 

For example, a sales rep might spend a week with the development team to understand the technicalities of their product before heading off to a trade show or big pitch. 

Inter-organizational secondment

This is when employees are temporarily transferred from one organization to another, allowing them to gain valuable experience in different industries or workspaces. 

For example, an accountant from a manufacturing business might move to another company in the finance sector to gain insights that can help enhance their understanding of how best to use specific tools and process payments.

Vendor or client secondment

This type of secondment is where an employee temporarily transfers to a vendor or client. This could be an external organization that provides services or goods to the business or a customer who needs specific support and advice. This arrangement allows employees to learn about different companies, cultures, and working methods.

For example, a copywriter in an advertising agency might spend a week with their client to learn more about their product and audience, which will help them create copy and concepts that resonate better with their client’s target audience. The secondee can then return their findings to the creative team and pass on this valuable information. 

Expertise recruitment

This is where organizations employ experts with specific skills to help them solve problems or complete projects. 

For example, a software development company might recruit an experienced programmer to help develop new code. The secondee is employed on a short-term basis to complete the project before returning home. Or perhaps two companies agree to ‘swap’ experts for a couple of weeks so they can each benefit from the other’s specific skill set.  

How long does a secondment last?

Secondments usually last between 3-12 months, depending on the employee and employer’s needs. But they can be as short as a couple of weeks and as long as a year or more. So the answer is: it depends!

What are the benefits of secondments?

Secondments provide countless opportunities for both the employee and the business. Here are some of the main advantages:

  • New skills training: Employees can gain experience in different departments, giving them a deeper knowledge of how the business operates. This is invaluable for their long-term career development.
  • Talent spotting: By rotating staff across different departments, businesses can identify talented employees capable of taking on more senior roles.
  • Fresh perspectives: Moving staff around your organization can bring new ideas to the table and help create an adaptive working environment that embraces change.
  • Improved morale: Secondments offer a unique opportunity to learn, grow and discover — something that can be incredibly fulfilling for employees.
  • Increased employee engagement through training and development: A secondment can be an incredibly enriching experience that helps improve employee engagement and morale.
  • Fosters an agile and adaptive work culture: By exposing staff to different environments and ways of working, secondments help organizations create an agile and adaptive work culture that loves change.
  • Improves customer service capabilities: Employees who undertake secondments will gain valuable insights into different departments and customer service, helping to improve this critical area of the business.

What are the disadvantages of secondments?

Despite the many advantages, organizations should be aware of some potential issues with secondments. While there are a lot listed here, don’t be put off! You can overcome most with careful management (and we’ll offer some tips right after this section).

  • High administrative costs: Secondments can incur additional costs in terms of paperwork and administration. (Though it’s worth bearing in mind the upfront cost could bring massive ROI. Estimate this part in your proposal — or try it once, measure your results, then use that to inform future plans). 
  • Increased staff turnover: When employees move to different departments, they may decide they no longer want to work for the company.
  • Lost productivity: When employees move around, there’s often a period of reduced productivity while they get up to speed with the new role.
  • Lack of continuity: If staff move around too often, it can cause problems with continuity and stability within teams.
  • Paperwork and administrative burden: Organizations must put the necessary processes and paperwork in place for secondments to run smoothly.
  • Doubling up on meetings: If employees transfer to different departments, managers and other staff need to attend multiple meetings for the same employee.
  • A steep and sometimes stressful learning curve: Secondments can be demanding since employees must learn a lot quickly.
  • A lack of belonging: Employees may feel disconnected from the organization and their colleagues when they transfer. They’re neither here nor there, displaced and not entirely in either role. This can feel worse if the secondment lasts a year or more. Furthermore, secondees often miss out on their home office culture, news, projects, and events — which can leave them feeling lost and left out.

How to make the most of secondments: tips for employees and employers 

For employees:

  • Take the initiative and request a secondment. If there is something you are interested in, don’t be afraid to ask — it could open up a world of opportunities for your career!
  • Get in touch with your new colleagues before starting!
  • Know what you want from the placement; set strategic goals before doing anything else.
  • Ask questions and learn as much as you can. Don’t just sit back — adapt, take notes and ask for feedback from your manager or colleagues.
  • Build relationships — a secondment can be an opportunity to get to know new people in different departments and make valuable connections for the future.
  • Stay in touch with your home team, so you don’t feel left out, and your return feels comfortable.
  • Stay connected with your secondment team once you return.
  • Take the time to learn before trying to change things. But once you understand the ins and outs, don’t hesitate to suggest new ideas. It’s what you’re there for! 
  • Ask for regular feedback.
  • Get everything in writing, signed by all relevant parties: Make sure you have a secondment agreement outlining what the secondment entails and any expectations, including durations, remuneration, benefits, services, performance management information, confidentiality, leave time, non-solicitation, termination details, intellectual property statements, and liability/indemnity as a bare minimum.  

For employers:

  • Start planning early — secondments take time to set up, so plan and have a clear agenda.
  • Set achievable goals and objectives — ensure the secondment is goal-oriented so your employee can track their progress and maximize their learning.
  • Monitor performance and provide feedback — it is essential to check in and make sure goals are being met, but also ensure your employee feels supported throughout the process.
  • Ensure all the paperwork is complete and signed off. 
  • Make sure you have the right tools in place. Project management software is a great way to keep everyone in the loop on project updates, while chat apps can be a great way to stay in touch. Try setting up a ‘just for fun’ group so the secondee can stay involved in team culture

Are secondments worth it?

When done correctly, secondments can offer a range of benefits to both employers and employees. That said, potential issues, such as administrative costs, staff turnover, and lack of continuity, must be considered.

Here are some questions to help you work out whether a secondment is the right choice:

  • Do the costs outweigh the benefits?
  • Will it help to develop the employee’s skills and knowledge?
  • Is it answering a business need?
  • Is it mutually beneficial?
  • What are the goals of the secondment?
  • What new skills will the team member learn?
  • What will the benefit be for the team?
  • What will happen after the secondment?

Final thoughts

Secondments can be a hugely beneficial training tool. By fostering an environment of learning, creativity, and innovation, organizations can create a work culture that will help them stay ahead in today’s competitive market. So why not give secondments a go — if it looks like a good option, it probably is. You never know what great things could come out of it!

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