In a working career that could potentially span 40 years or more, the period immediately after a return from maternity leave is tiny. We’re talking 1 – 2%. And yet that tiny period can have such a massive impact on a woman’s long term career. Get it wrong and it’s game over.
The biggest success factor? Going back into the right environment. So what do organisations need to do to make sure that the return is smooth?
We canvassed all the women in our network to find out their top 10 pieces of advice. The overriding plea? Leave your assumptions at the door.
“Everyone is different. Don’t assume you know how I’m feeling or what I will or will not want to do next at work.”
Your checklist. Can you say that you have …
Begun with an open mind. Talked to the individual about coming back and what their thoughts and feelings are. Some women just want to crack on with their career, others might want to take a step back, many just don’t know. It’s too early. Just make the return easy and remember. These are talented women who had great careers before and they still have great potential ahead. Yes, they might need to take their foot off the gas a little but they were and are a great asset. Lose them at your peril.
Connected them with a buddy or mentor – ideally someone they will “fit” with who has been through something similar recently.
“Having a parental mentor was invaluable. Leaving your child crying at a childminder then sprinting to work, you’re constantly feeling like you’r short changing everyone. It was such a relief to talk to someone who’d been through that and come out the other side.”
3. Dealt with flexible working requests thoroughly. Been through the detail of not just the hours but also the workload and targets – made sure they are adjusted to reflect any reduction in hours. Agreed remote working practices – when and where, what technology will be used.
4. Reminded the individual and the line manager that the first 6 – 9 months is a transition – there will be ups and downs – talked about what to watch out for and how to deal with the highs and lows.
“My return was much easier because my manager gave me space and trust to do what I had to do to fit in work and childcare.”
5. Jointly developed a 90 day onramp plan, which is understood and agreed by everyone of significance. Make sure the focus is on making the return an enjoyable experience rather than a “trial by fire”.
6. Identified the work that the individual will be doing (there is nothing worse than returning to an empty in tray) and agreed a handover plan for any work or clients being dealt with by others during the maternity leave. Don’t make people start all over again with their clients and other important relationships.
I had two children and each time I returned, it was like starting again. No wonder I felt exhausted.
7. Talked about the money: any schemes provided to help with child care costs; rules for determining bonuses; how to restart AVCs for pensions; joining in share schemes
8. Had an open discussion about what to do in a crisis – when the childcare falls through, illness. This will happen. Make everyone’s life easier by figuring out how you will deal with it in advance.
9. Set up the tech and admin in advance so that a return is smooth.
“It was essential to be open and transparent with the team about where and when I was working. Our shared calendar was useful in showing people what my non work days were and when I could be contacted at home. Using tools like Slack and Google drive meant that remote working was so easy and efficient.”
10. Had a conversation about both short term thoughts and intentions AND longer term career ambitions. If you don’t do this, steps 1 – 9 will have been wasted.
The company was great at agreeing to my flexible working requests, but I went from being a top performer to being rated “average”. I was as ambitious as ever and committed to my clients. I couldn’t reconcile being downgraded simply because I needed some flexibility, so I left.”
Gender pay gaps, lack of women on boards, too few women in positions of influence, lack of female role models – these are all challenges for most organisations. Retaining women post maternity leave is a vital part of making progress towards whatever goals you have in these areas. Don’t let that 1% of a women’s working life derail all your good efforts elsewhere.
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