Do parents returning to work add value to the business, or are the benefits outweighed by the challenges?
I recently returned to work after my second maternity leave. Before having my first child my sense of worth in the workplace was defined, in part by how much I achieved and how many hours I worked. When I first returned to work part time, with working hours squashed between childcare drop off and pick up, it was hard to adjust. This time round I'm excited to be back, and looking forward to the future. So what is different?
Like many parents, I wanted to return to the workplace, and had always planned on doing so. There were a few drivers for this. Financially it made sense. With Australia’s woeful paid parental leave allowances, an extended leave of absence hits parents hard in the back pocket. Whilst the current government was elected with a signature policy of improving this, and did so in a small way, they have now rolled that back and many companies will follow suit. This will force some people to return to work earlier than they would have done otherwise, and returning before you are ready increases the guilt at leaving your child, as well as the challenge in adapting to your new working parent role. My main driver however, was that I love my job; I like the people I work with, and I wanted to get back in the mix.
The first challenge to overcome is finding accessible childcare with available places on the days I wanted to work. The recent federal budget has attempted to assist with this through simplifying the childcare payments, and establishing a pilot scheme for nannies for shift workers. Companies can also assist in being flexible about the combination of days that employees work, the hours they work on those days, and providing the technology to allow parents to work from home and reduce commuting time where possible. The language used in offering this is important, so that the returning parent doesn’t feel like the company is doing them a favour, nor that they owe the company one in return.
The second challenge is the uncertainty of what the returning parent is coming back to. Will their previous role work on a part time basis? Do clients expect more than they can reasonably give? The hardest thing can be the loss of confidence from the parent, wondering if after being out of the workforce for months they can remember how to do their job. Companies can help to ease this transition. Staying in touch with people while they are on extended leave keeps them up to date with what’s going on in the workplace, so they feel less out on a limb when they walk back through the door. This can be as easy as sending the weekly update email to their home email address instead of the work one. If they are up to date with what’s going on in the business they can make informed suggestions as to where they feel they can best add value when they return.
Thinking outside of the box is also critical – if the individual can no longer act in their previous role, can they provide mentoring, guidance and training to those who do? Other options could be moving from a project manager role to a project director role; taking on a more corporate focussed role; job sharing with others in the same situation, or taking on smaller parts of larger projects? A plan which is modified as time goes on is better than no plan at all.
Finally, on the day the parent returns, it’s worth remembering this is a huge step for them. It’s easy to forget that a lot will have changed in the office – people and departments may have moved, roles have changed, new people have started, old people have left. A simple map of the office, showing department locations and meeting rooms can be the best welcome back present!
So as I return to work this time, I know that I can overcome these challenges, and that it’s worth the effort to do so. Why? The easy reason which is often given is that working mums are more efficient, they’re great at multi-tasking. Although a working parent has probably learnt to effectively prioritise their workload and make decisions quickly, I hate the stereotype that only women can multi-task, and who says multi-tasking is the best thing anyway?
I believe that the best reason for both employee and employer in overcoming these challenges is that the person was worth employing before they had a baby. Growing and nurturing a human being hasn’t altered that, and it’s worth putting in the time and effort to grow and develop the parent too.