14.09.2015 : Kirsty Johns

Return on investment of returning to work

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.

About the Author

Kirsty Johns

Manager - Water AU

Kirsty is a chemical engineer, project manager and facilitator who has worked in the UK and Australasia. She is passionate about designing for safety, delivering on time and developing the next generation of engineers.

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ADD A COMMENT
Kirsty Johns · 22/09/2015 1:23:20 p.m.
Thanks Stuart. I hope that my sharing this will allow people to learn from my experiences, because I was very much the same as your colleague - first time I had no idea, but I learnt quickly and the second time round was much more proactive. There's a lot of talk about the responsibility of the company to encourage people back to work, which is true, and goes along with the responsibility of the individual - it's just we often don't know what to do first time round!!

Stuart McDonald · 18/09/2015 3:23:42 p.m.
Hi Kirsty,

Great article and your insights are worth bearing in mind for everyone including managers and colleagues. I work in People and Culture and truly believe and have always been a strong advocate for supporting a woman returning from maternity leave and the benefits that brings to the individual and the organisation. However if I'm honest, I never quite fully understood or appreciated the bit about loss of confidence and all the changes to the workplace until I had to go on a secondment for six months myself. I vividly remember having all these doubts such as maybe the person replacing me is better than me, maybe they don't need or want me back, what if the work is different, can I do it? It took me weeks to settle back in and took a lot of encouragement from my manager and team.

In our current team we have someone who is on maternity leave having her second. When she returned from having her first baby the team had changed everything, HR to P&C, the make up of the team and the physical location, nothing was the same. It must have been really hard. This time she has stayed in touch with the wider team, has been into the office and is talking on a regular basis with her manager. Hopefully that will make the next return and transition easier. I'd encourage that anyone going away from their team for a period of time stays in touch and keeps up with any changes.

Thanks for a great post.

Christel · 13/07/2015 3:04:53 p.m.
Hi Kirsty, very spot on! I like the way you end your thinking with questioning the stereotype of women and multi-tasking. I'm currently reading a book ' The one thing' and it's exactly what you said! Welcome back and thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kirsty.

Darryl Vogel · 26/06/2015 6:12:52 p.m.
Great article, Kirsty and pertinent comments from others. Happy to offer my every assistance to you if this assists in your transition but will need the charge code [insert small chuckle here] Welcome back..

Kirsty Johns · 22/06/2015 1:47:10 p.m.
Thanks Georgina, it is great to be back, having grown and nurtured all the human beings I plan on growing!

Kirsty Johns · 22/06/2015 1:46:20 p.m.
It's increasingly important that we focus on these issues across genders, because by focussing only on mothers returning to work, we make work-life balance a "female" issue, when it is not. Thanks for the feedback.

Georgina Hoad · 17/06/2015 2:20:57 p.m.
Great article, Kirsty. Thanks for sharing your experiences. You make some great points. My favourite was your conclusion - that growing and nurturing a human being doesn't alter the professional worth of the parent, and it’s worth putting in the time and effort to grow and develop the parent too. Good to have you back in the office!

Ingrid Waugh · 17/06/2015 11:55:20 a.m.
Thanks for sharing your insights, Kirsty. Also liked your comments about flexibility and recognising that things have changed and your acknowledgement that it isn't just women who might benefit from the organisation thinking about these issues. Good to have such thinking shared.

Kirsty Johns · 17/06/2015 10:52:30 a.m.
Yes, not everyone is as tragic as me and checks their work email whilst away!

Kirsty Johns · 17/06/2015 10:52:10 a.m.
Welcome to Beca! I've always said Beca is one of the better companies for being willing to work with part timers, having heard some horror stories from elsewhere. I'm glad you're finding the same.

Kirsty Johns · 17/06/2015 10:51:22 a.m.
Thanks, Ian. As an ex-section manager, there's definitely stuff I've learnt that I wish I knew before.

Melanie Orr · 17/06/2015 10:10:28 a.m.
Great article, Kirsty. I especially like the idea of the employer continuing to email those on maternity leave.

Heather Perring · 17/06/2015 8:11:26 a.m.
I returned to work last year after being a stay at home mum for eight years. My first day (or even month) back was a real head spin, but now I can see that all those years at home have not counted for nothing. I have come back to work with much enhanced organisational skills, maturity and resilience. There is also a confidence and belief in one's own decisions that comes from having to manage children and a busy household. These things have been appreciated by Beca who are willing to take a risk on me, and they have been great at supporting me through the introduction back into work as a working Mum! I think the suggestion about getting your employer to email you updates while on maternity leave is a fantastic one!

Ian Macbeth · 17/06/2015 8:01:56 a.m.
Great article, Kirsty - a really useful insight, particularly for Section Managers, to the extent that I'd recommend the details are kept by the People and Culture team for dissemination to returnee mothers and to their Section Managers. Speaking for myself (with five working mothers in my team) and my experience, working mums add a lot of value and diversity to the team. And, as you say, they can multitask - three of the five are project managers!

Kirsty Johns · 16/06/2015 10:15:15 p.m.
Lee, it took me a while to realise my own worth and while Beca was very supportive, it's hard when the returnee is struggling to work out what value they can add to work out where they can best add it. It's probably the one message I'd like parents returning to work to really feel they understand.

Kirsty Johns · 16/06/2015 10:12:55 p.m.
Thanks, Gina. I really am loving it coming back this time round and a lot of these ideas are things I've learnt between my two breaks and I'm a great believer in keeping it simple!

Lee Norman · 16/06/2015 4:36:59 p.m.
Kirsty, great article, I think your last point is the most important - "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". If everyone took this statement as the starting point when a person was looking to return to work then the acceptance and engagement of both parties in all organisations would be considerably better.

Gina Hutchison · 16/06/2015 1:38:22 p.m.
Great article, Kirsty. There are some really simple useful ideas that anyone can implement to support our colleagues with contributing to the work we do. Best of luck on your return back!