leadership, People & Human Resources

The role leaders can play in helping new parents return to work

Bridget Thakrar /

Stella Botsioulis, Praveen Gunasekaran and Sri Kanathigoda from South East Water – all people leaders who take up flexible working arrangements by working part-time, and/or regularly work from home. Source: Supplied

How can leaders and organisations better support new parents as they return to work? Bridget Thakrar shares some ideas from her team at South East Water. 

When I returned to work seven months after the birth of my first child, I was anxious. All around me were stories about how returning to work had gone spectacularly wrong — and not just because I work in people and culture. My council-appointed parents’ group was the perfect microcosm of what it’s like for parents, particularly mothers, returning to the workforce after having a baby.

Their stories were varied but there was a theme to how these new parents felt after interacting with their employers: they felt like they were an annoyance and an inconvenience, like the organisation was doing them a favour even consulting about their post-baby roles and working conditions.

I wonder why some leaders and organisations have such a fixed mindset when it comes to thinking differently about how work can work? If as a society we understand and expect that business is no longer conducted Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm (recognising that some roles are more inherently flexible than others), then why do so some leaders still believe this is the only option for work?

Source: Supplied

Top tips to help employees transition back to work

At South East Water we haven’t got the return-to-work transition perfect just yet, but we are really trying (the picture above is from one of our business-wide workshops).

We’re working to further educate our leaders so they can better support their teams, and on highlighting our internal role models to show you can balance what’s important outside of work with your aspirations at work.

Here are my tips from what I’ve learnt on this journey so far, for other organisations to ensure the successful transition of employees back to the workforce — for whatever reason they’ve been away for.

If you work in people and culture:

Have an agreed position on flexible work and communicate this often to all employees.

Identify internal role models who have flexible work options and celebrate them.

Recognise the importance of cultural norms, attitudes and language around flexibility. You aren’t “just” working part-time. Do employees really need to seek permission to leave work at 4.45 pm? How do you manage traditional leaders who have no appetite for flexible work?

Invest in technology that enables flexible work. If your people have the tools to do their work, regardless of time and location, you will likely see the payoff in discretionary effort. There may be an upfront investment required but it’s a good idea to look at the business case for this to see if it stacks up for you.

If you’re a leader:

Start planning how your team member will return to work even before they even leave. Establish how, and how often you will communicate during the period of leave. Supporting your team member throughout their transition will help to make them feel really engaged and connected to the organisation.

Start with positive intent and a position of “yes”, and assume that both parties want to do right by the organisation. Be prepared to experiment and understand that not everything is going to work first time — and that’s okay.

Critically examine work structures to explore if any of these are indirectly negatively impacting the team. Meeting times, frequency and location is a good place to start.

Recognise that part-time employees need a part-time work load, not a full-time one — and support your team member in understanding this, too, so they don’t get overloaded, burnt out or disengaged.

If you’re the one returning to work:

Be proactive. Don’t wait for the organisation to do all the thinking and heavy lifting. Come prepared with a business case for what you think will work for the business and for you — no one will have better knowledge of this than you.

Be flexible yourself. There may be days where you’re required in the office that isn’t preferable. Wherever you can, work around these. Flexibility goes both ways.

Be realistic about what you can and can’t do. You can’t do a five-day role in three, and given you will only be getting three days’ pay, you shouldn’t. Some parts of your role may need to be carved out, on a temporary or more permanent job-share arrangement.

Paul Jones, water quality manager, works three days a week in a job-sharing arrangement so he can look after his child two days per week. Lucy Delahey, community engagement strategy manager, was appointed in a new role while on maternity leave. Now back at work, Lucy works part-time and works some of her hours from home.

At South East Water, we have athletes who work compressed weeks in order to allow time for training. Others are recovering from serious injuries who work flexibly and often on modified duties to support their return to work. We have a proportion of our workforce nearing retirement age who are choosing to reduce their working days to support this critical life transition. And we have fathers who work flexibly to be more present at home, either to manage school pick-ups and drop-offs or work part-time to take more of a lead role at home.

“Flexibility isn’t just about parents, especially mums, returning to work after having babies.”

A more progressive approach to flexible work is becoming an expectation of all workers, especially millennials. Organisations that don’t adapt their traditional paradigms and workplace structures will miss out on retaining their existing talent, and engaging new talent coming through.

You’ll also find that having a progressive approach to flexible work is an enabler for improving inclusion in all areas, including people with different abilities, cultural backgrounds and life stages, including, but not limited to, parents returning to work.

I challenge you to try some of these tips on for size at your organisation. You just might like them, and I know your employees will too.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

NOW READ: These are the real challenges of returning to work after parental leave

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Bridget Thakrar

Bridget Thakrar in the general manager of people and safety at South East Water.

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