How to start the conversation with your boss around working flexibly

Making the leap back to work after parental leave can be a challenge. How will I juggle my work and family needs? Can I still make progress in my career? How do I talk about this with my employer? And so the juggle begins!

Many new parents find that working flexibly is the solution to their return to work problems. And with the pandemic redefining the traditional office, increasingly employers are becoming open to it. Whether it’s a temporary thing to help ease you back into work, or a more permanent solution, it’s worth exploring flexible working with your employer to discover if it’s the right fit for you. Here, a working parent reflects on her journey plus her helpful tips for starting the conversation with your employer.

I’m expecting

I can clearly remember during my first pregnancy when I was counting down the days and dreaming about my year off on parental leave. I was happily farewelling my co-workers and talking about how blissful my year off work would be, and yes, I’d be in all the time to visit with my baby. 

I’m on leave

Fast forward 10 months and I’d been in to work only once to meet my new leader. But I soon found myself starting to dream about what it’d be like to have a cup of hot tea and go to the bathroom by myself! Work was starting to look much more attractive all over again.

The best time to start having conversations with your leader is probably about now. I was four months out from starting back at work when I started to reopen communication with my leader. Most workplaces will have gone through a lot of change in the year that you’ve been away. You’ll want to find out about your role, your team, new members, goals of the team and your leader’s vision for the team. It’s a great way to get you connected with the organisation again and will give you some excitement around what you’ll be doing when you go back. If you can attend a team lunch or event, then that’s even better. There is nothing like speaking with your co-workers to find out about the current morale and who’s who in the zoo.

Then, go home and talk to your partner/parents/friends/support person about the impact all that information will have for your return to work. Don’t make any promises of dates of return or days you want to work until you have some time to digest it. It might also trigger you to reflect on whether the role will work for you based on the days you want to work and your childcare requirements.

I’m just back at work

You will need to decide how many days you are going to work and be honest about that with your leader. My advice is to start low and work your way back up. In the future, it will be easier to negotiate to work for more days than to tell your leader that you need to work fewer days. My organisation allowed me to start working two days a week so I could have the time to work out my family and work would integrate. I eventually progressed to three days a week.

I know from experience that conversations with your leader about your transition back to work are never black and white. Organisations have set company policies, job roles and responsibilities and it’s unlikely they’ll change those just for you. However, there is no harm in being honest and challenging the status quo. When I started conversations with my leader about returning to work after my second parental leave, I put my real thoughts out there. I challenged how I would be able to progress if all managerial roles were five days a week. Luckily, at about the same time, the organisation was developing some more flexible work arrangements and I’m so pleased that they have now restructured roles to be job-shared by two part-timers. Workplaces are now talking about support for parents returning to work and offering working parents more flexibility. I believe it’s our voices and our suggestions that will make a difference.

I had probably one of the most supportive workplaces which did want to ensure I was comfortable returning to work and offered me all the flexibility in the world. However, the transition back to work was still difficult and it didn’t stop issues arising where I’d still be asked to work extra days. You will feel at times that the struggle is hard and the support is low. But I do know that there is a fantastic network of working parents and empathetic leaders who understand exactly what you are going through and who know that you are amazing to juggle it all. Good luck for your first day back at work and those all-important conversations with your leaders!

Written by Jenny Vanderhoek, CEO of Mynder and mum of two.

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