How businesses can help mums to return to work

First published on Design Week on 13 June 2019.

Diversity has always mattered – but now, it feels to be an increasingly important issue, not only morally, but because diversity has proven to significantly impact financial performance and business success. It increases innovation, creativity, employee satisfaction, loyalty and dramatically widens your talent pool.

As a seasoned human resources (HR) director, my personal area of interest is gender diversity and specifically, how we can make it easier for businesses to encourage and support more women to return to work after maternity or adoption leave and to move into leadership roles.

In early 2018, my work in this area was granted a fresh perspective; I became a mum. Always highly respected as an empathetic HR person, I believed I truly understood the challenges of working mums. The birth of my own child gave me a startling reality check. Looking back, I was naïve and wholly ignorant. At times, I was insensitive. I understand now why conversations between us (the business) and our employee (the mum) typically ended with both sides feeling frustrated, unsatisfied and with a feeling that they hadn’t been heard.

Talking to colleagues and mums across industries, for many these experiences remain real. There are a myriad of ways business owners can easily start making a positive difference to women wanting a career alongside motherhood. Here is some of my best advice on how to rethink maternity so that it benefits everyone.

If she wants flexible working, give it a try

Sometimes, it feels like flexible working and mum are synonymous. Perhaps because almost every woman I know has requested to or does work flexibly once they become a mum. Why? Parents need flexibility to enable them to bring up their child and to manage childcare and the excruciating childcare costs (in London, this is £323 a week for full-time nursery). It’s not because they care about their job any less. In fact, for many mums, work becomes even more important after they have children.

When it comes to flexible working, it’s all too often a negative conversation between employer and employee. And this is surprising given the abundance of research that defies any notion that flexible working is a bad idea. It’s also an invaluable and inexpensive way for you to support mums (and other carers).

Flexible working comes in many shapes and sizes and with an open mind and adult conversation, you can make it work for you, your employee and your clients. And if you’re in any doubt, simply trial the new arrangement for three months before you commit to it permanently.

If you do it for her, you don’t need to do it for everyone

When I hear about flexible working (and other) requests being refused, I often hear: “Well, if I do it for her, I’ll have to do it for others.” This is either a common misconception or just plain lazy – it’s not true and it doesn’t help anyone.

Legally, you are well within your rights to take each case as it comes and review any request within the business circumstances at that time. By saying yes to one person, this does not mean you are setting a precedent infinitum.

With this in mind, when a mum requests a different working pattern, first trust that her request is reasonable (after all she’s the one doing the job and knows its demands and is therefore best placed to know whether she can deliver it within the bounds of her request), discuss it with her within the context of your business right now, sharing any concerns you have, and then decide whether or not you can make it work for her.

Use her keeping-in-touch days

Women can work up to 10 paid days during their maternity or adoption leave as “keeping in touch (KIT) days”, without it affecting any statutory pay. They are a brilliant way to support your employee to confidently transition back to business. Have a conversation with her and get creative about how she might use her KIT days.

Perhaps she can join an immersion day or an annual client review. Maybe she can attend training on the new customer relationship management (CRM) system or finance system that’s been implemented while she’s been away. Maybe she can take a day in the office to clear the inevitable 1,000+ emails that will have stacked up and reacquaint herself with her commute, her team and her clients.

And KIT days aside, remember to invite her to team and company events or socials; they’re a great way for her to stay engaged, although she’ll only know about them if you invite her.

Offer her a maternity buddy

No woman’s maternity experience is ever the same but for most mums, returning to work after maternity or adoption leave is a tough transition; physically, mentally and emotionally.

You can provide invaluable support during this transition by linking a new mum with another mum in the business or industry. An experienced mum can offer reassurance and advice on juggling work and childcare. She’ll give a new mum confidence and self-belief and can be a useful reality check.

A maternity buddy can also be a conduit to you; a voice to let you know if a new mum is struggling being back, providing you with honest feedback, which her colleague may find difficult to share if she’s feeling vulnerable.

Take time to understand how you can best support her

You’ll likely have a maternity policy in place that informs how you manage maternity transitions. See this as covering basic human needs (unless of course, your policy covers all needs and eventualities or simply states: “our policy is to treat each of you as an individual”).

Every mum is an individual with individual experience and circumstances. Every mum will need something different to support her to return to work as her best self and to perform at the highest standards. In my recent survey of over 200 women returners, these were some of the things they needed: a clear work plan, return to work coaching to rebuild their confidence, access to post-natal support (Peppy, for example), a private room with a fridge for breast pumping, and flexibility.

Have a conversation with your employee about what she needs and do all you can to accommodate this. You’ll get the return on your investment, and some.

Create a warm welcome

And finally, a small and very simple thing: give her a warm welcome back. By this I mean: make sure she has a workspace with pen and paper ready for her; make sure her IT and phone are set-up and working so that she can immediately access everything she needs; be there when she arrives to say hello; plan her first week back and send a company-wide email welcoming her; and let everyone know what she’ll be working on. She may be an existing employee but a great deal has changed for you and her since she’s been off.

Tackling gender imbalance isn’t easy. We have deep roots to unearth but you can begin to make a difference today by being empathetic, conscientious and flexible. I promise the investment will be worth it.

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