Making it work
Maternity coach Sarah Courtney suggests positive and practical ways to support working parents
As a maternity coach, I partner with employers who want to support their working parents as they transition back to work after having children. The thought of returning to work can be nerve-racking with parents wondering, "will I be taken seriously at work anymore?"; "How will I keep my career on track but still enjoy my family?"; "I can't stay late any more, is this even going to work?" It's understandable for these concerns to set in after an absence from work of several months but there is a lot parents can do to make the transition as easy on themselves as it can be.
Happily, these parents aren't on their own in sorting all of this out. There are also many forward-thinking employers willing to meet you half way, and wanting to know the dos and don'ts to make this time of change as enjoyable as possible for their employees.
So whether you are a parent about to throw themselves back into the corporate world and wondering where to start, an employer managing staff on maternity, paternity or parental leave, or perhaps someone who just has an interest in supporting working parents, take a moment to think about the practical steps you could take to make this a really positive and productive time for everyone.
1 Communicate: It's never too early to engage with your working parents-to-be, always keeping in mind that the most critical element of communication is the ability and willingness to really listen. Create a culture of open communication where options can be explored without judgement. Many parents are nervous about approaching their employer for fear of them thinking they aren't serious about their career anymore. The opposite is often the case, with working parents becoming even more focused.
2 Remember both the person and the professional: It doesn't matter how senior the returner is, or whether it is their first or fourth child, everyone is human. They will have worried about their first day back, picked out an outfit and have practised their childcare drop off. They probably won't sleep well the night before. They will have been on the countdown to this day regardless of how much leave they took. As their employer, be the first to reach out well in advance, meet them for a coffee or take them for lunch, have their desk ready, make sure IT access is smooth and make sure the whole team is aware of their return and ready to welcome them. It's ok to show excitement that they are back.
3 Consistent messaging: Whether your employee speaks to their line manager, HR or a colleague, the message needs to be consistent. As an employer make sure your words and actions match your policies. Don't assume line managers automatically know how to manage a paternity or maternity leave. Protective employee legislation in this area sometimes means managers are nervous of what they can and can't say. Coaching line managers in this area is time well spent. Remember the behaviours and values you encourage or turn a blind eye to, tell the real story.
4 Role model: Family-friendly policies are critical but you bring the essence of them to life when you have multiple and diverse role models across your organisation. Working dads taking parental leave, working moms thriving in leadership roles, staff at all levels availing of flexible working options. Don't be afraid to shine a light on these role models. Not every company champions working parents but those that do will find their recruitment, engagement and retention campaigns a whole lot easier.
5 Gather feedback and be open to improvement: Nowhere is perfect but there are great examples out there of really positive transitions back to work after having children. Maybe there are pockets of your organisation that seem to lose their working parents; maybe other teams see a stampede of working parents trying to join them. As an employer, show brave leadership by teasing out where the mistakes are made and allow your company to grow from these experiences.
1 Assume: A very basic mistake is to allow unconscious bias to assume you know what every working parent wants. Often the best of intentions can lead employers down the wrong path. Shouldn't a new mother want to take as much time with her baby as she can? Aren't all working fathers ready to travel to a client at a moment's notice? Don't all working mothers want part time? This is not a one size fits all situation. Assumptions are dangerous especially when you are making them unconsciously.
2 Create division: I think there is an unsaid resentment that it's ok to allow women flexible working options but not men. Treating employees differently just widens the gap and doesn't do mums or dads any favours in the long run. I would go a step further and offer all flexible options you can realistically support to all staff members, whether they are parents or not. Creating division always backfires.
3 Fail to act out of uncertainty or assuming someone else will: HR sometimes assume the line manager will take the lead, and the line manager often thinks this is HR's job. As the employer, view this as an opportunity to re-onboard a valuable team member. Create clear plans for who does what. Whose responsibility is it to get in touch with the working parent before they return? Who will make sure their security access to the buildings works; who will plan their workload for the first few days; who will get them up to speed on changes that have taken place in their absence; who will check in with them to see how they are settling back over the next few weeks. If these basics get missed, the working parent can have an unnecessarily tough return to work and the repercussions of this can result in an employee who no longer feels needed, and who may start to consider other options.
Sarah Courtney is a mother, coach and champion of supporting parents who want to remain in the workplace.