I went on parental leave in March 2020. At my last work event, a speech I was giving for an International Women’s Day event, I remember the host asking, “Do you mind shaking hands?” We all know our version of what happened over the next few months. This being my second child, I can tell you that pregnancy and birth in a COVID-19 environment was nothing like the first time. In the end we were extraordinarily fortunate and had an amazing experience welcoming our son.
Meanwhile, work life continued without me, as it does when you are on extended leave. In May this year I returned to work. My first weeks back felt largely like a sci-fi movie of an alternate reality. You know the one. The people are the same. The work and their clients are similar too. Yet there are major differences. ‘Where am I and what is happening?’ become plot for the remaining hour of the film. Returning, I found the environment, challenges, and way we perform work were completely different.
I spoke with two other mothers returning who happen to also be my neighbours, Lucy and Sarah. I want to highlight that this article is focused on the experiences of three mothers returning to work after parental leave with similar demographic profiles. In that I acknowledge that there are many ways families are formed and numerous experiences of this life event. Hopefully, what follows will at least open discussion for any parent returning.
Deloitte’s recent survey Women @ Work: A global outlook, indicates the pandemic is disproportionately impacting the careers of women. Women are less optimistic about their future careers, taking on more of the new demands at home, and reporting increased workloads. Only 4% of the 5,000 women surveyed across 10 countries reported an experience of high inclusion at work. The pandemic has already created a tenuous environment with respect to mental health and well-being. The further impact on women in non-inclusive work environments is cause for alarm. It is not time for us to step backward with respect to inclusion in any form. Returning mothers represent an opportunity to address inclusion positively and keep talented women in the workforce.
Let’s look at a few of the challenges first:
The primary challenges remain the same. For Lucy, a first-time mum returning to her career as a senior social worker, her biggest challenge is leaving her son at day care after spending every day with him for months. I remember this feeling clearly with my first. It was physical.
Sarah, a property lawyer overseeing a team, and me, a leadership consultant, have both returned after our second. Our primary challenge is logistics. We absolutely miss our kids, yet the balancing act has reached another level.
Here is what managers can do:
- Express understanding of this dramatic shift in identity and demands. A brief check-in or sharing of a personal experience can go a long way.
- Be clear on priorities for what the returner needs to deliver and discuss work/home boundaries. Many returning parents are doing so part time. They need to know the company supports them pushing back when asked to do more than time allows.
- Understand the parent’s rights under the law and what is afforded them by the company’s flexibility policies. Work with them to develop a schedule and a way of working that will work best for you both.
How work gets done has changed dramatically. This may seem obvious, but people returning from extended leave need time to come up to speed even if they were around for the beginning of the COVID-19 changes. Working with the new technology that was introduced has been a steep and sudden learning curve for me. One that everyone else in the office had already moved on from.
Working from home is also a shift other team members have adjusted to. Lucy now has a laptop and a one day at home hybrid working model. Managing boundary creep between home and work is more challenging. Returners are having to establish, or re-establish these boundaries while learning all the new processes.
Demands have changed as well. Sarah’s office is also using a hybrid model, and she is finding there is significantly more administrative work managing office schedules, supporting people working from home and encouraging people back to the office. This extra work is needing to be done in less time due to returning on a reduced schedule.
Here is what managers can do:
- Reflect on and document the many changes to how work is done since the employee was last present. Identify any training the employee may need as a result, and book times for that training to occur.
- Make use of the team by identifying colleagues who are willing to help the returning person come up to speed. This has the added benefit of reconnecting the returner with their colleagues.
Now for the challenge/opportunity in one:
The team has been through something big, and the person returning has missed some or all of it. There are stories about how a significant event experienced by a group of people changes relationships. Often people experience a deeper bond through shared struggle. The stories of working through the immense challenge that was the start of COVID-19 have entered the cultural narrative. As an example, in our company, people talk about pulling together the night before the launch of a big in-person program and making everything virtual due to a sudden lockdown. My team thrived, I am proud of what they accomplished, yet I wasn’t a part of it. I don’t feel left out so much as I would have liked to have been in the thick of it with them. I wasn’t there, and I am still catching up.
The flip side is that I have as fresh a perspective as we are ever going to get while having all the background information. My colleague Lauren has consistently highlighted this and found ways to take advantage of it. She has helped me feel that I can still help the team move forward and adjust despite missing the most challenging part of the transition.
Here is what managers can do:
- Remember people returning may not have the context to something new and different. Fill the returning person in on the stories and the reasons behind decisions that were made. Help them understand the past, feel a part of the process now, and engage them in the future by seeking their feedback.
- Schedule regular fortnightly meetings to determine how the returning parent is adjusting. Continue to identify any areas where they may need more information or can be of help to the team.
Finally, the golden opportunity:
Building an inclusive culture. While flexible working has been a part of the inclusion discussion for years, we have never seen it more actively in practice. What we have learned can be used to support returning parents to work effectively from home, and/or make the necessary alterations to their schedules to meet the demands they face. While companies are adopting different models that suit their needs it is a great time to review, revise and apply what we have learned to existing policies.
We also have a greater opportunity to build relationships and participate beyond geography. Before COVID-19, I was often the only member of the team on video. That is certainly not the case today. I have seen more of my colleagues on video than ever before. I also know more about what is happening for them and vice versa due to regular virtual communication.
Sarah also commented on relationship building. It is easier for her to connect with her colleagues in other cities and with her clients. New opportunities have come from combining business development conversations with required virtual check-ins. Of course, this advantage is not limited to those of us returning.
Here is what managers can do:
- Review existing policies related to flexible working and implement the lessons learned. Ensure flexibility is applied to everyone as practicable to take care of their physical and mental well-being.
- Encourage the returning person to spend time on the platform the team is using to socialise and to share their experience coming back. Provide them the time to look through past posts, highlighting those that are most relevant to the work they are jumping into.
- Help the returner to understand the networking opportunities now available to them and share how others are using these.
It is an enormous shift when a child arrives in your life, and everything has changed around us too. Supporting parents to adjust to the new demands personally and professionally, understand how work has changed, and see the opportunities that exist can make a person’s return to work easier and more productive. Taking steps toward building more inclusive cultures is more important than ever before and benefits us all.
As I write this, we are experiencing another snap lockdown in Perth. Other cities are also on lockdown as a new strain of the virus presents itself in Australia. We have not seen the end of this pandemic, and we will need to continue to adjust, finding the best way forward for businesses and families. Let’s use the opportunity to create workplaces where people feel safe, supported and empowered to do their best.