Welcoming mums back to work: a guide for managers and parents

The ‘return to work after maternity leave’ — Note to managers

“Hi! I’ve just come back from maternity leave and I’m ready to DIVE in!”

Been walking around with milk stained shirts and having one-sided conversations for months so I’m thrilled to be back!

If you’ve heard similar statements before, my advice would be- take it with a grain of salt. Behind that smiling face of a returning-to-work mother, there’s a worried soul. The emotions that are in play vary between sadness and longing to overall confusion about the value of work vs parenting.

According to Circle In research that surveyed 1,000 parents in Australia, 75% of working parents believe their employer could have done more to support them through parental leave and when returning to work. Another interesting fact was that 53% of parents felt leaders in their workplace did not role model support for working parents.

If you’re a manager reading this, I want to try and help you change this statistic. It is not a quick exercise of box ticking- some of the actions mentioned below require time and effort BUT whatever you do for the first few months will forever be appreciated by your employees so it’s damn important!

The overarching rule is- treat them like they are new starters and provide the support, information and ALL of the hand-holding they might need- no matter their background, gender, seniority level or assumed confidence level.

Let’s go.

Create a plan (pre work)

I remember my first week very clearly, running around like a headless chicken, with no focus or clear objective. It doesn’t have to be this way.

I recently came across a manager at SEEK that prepared in advance a structured document for his employee, upon her return-

“Hey X, great to have you back. Please find below a rough guide to familiarise yourself with this new problem domain, new team, new stakeholders, what I think the challenges will be, etc.”

This document had outlined who she could lean on, which things she should focus on for the first few weeks and then a more advanced plan, mapping the next few months. It also contained info about which stakeholders she should meet, which learnings are needed and what the expected outcomes are.

I find this a very useful tool but it doesn’t fit every style. Only you know your employee and what they best respond to.

Allow flexible working options

In the research mentioned above, 38% of employees feel their return to work experience could have been improved by better access to more flexible working options.

Many returning to work employees are looking to transition gradually but what does that actually mean? For some it might be working 2–3 days a week, when for others it might be working remotely more often or doing shorter days. I personally just expected a moderate work load in the first few weeks. Make sure you know exactly what that means for YOUR employee and be proactive about it, as it might be challenging for them to approach you with these type of requests.

Additional points to consider-

  1. Don’t assume that everyone wants to return gradually! (I didn’t)

Set up for arrival

The admin work that is required will vary between individuals or companies so choose the ones that are relevant to you-

  • Make sure a desk is assigned, as well as monitors, keyboards or anything else that they might need. I’d recommend reaching out and asking what those needs are well in advance, before their return.

Onboard (First day/week back)

Make the time for a coffee with your returning employees, preferably OUT of the office. Maybe invite the broader team to say hello. Allow them to share their experiences as new parents and ask them to show you baby photos! Remember that while you were designing and shaping products, they were designing and shaping a human!

You should be present as much as you can for the first few days but if you are struggling to find the time- assign a buddy to help get them up to speed and take them out for lunch.

As I was drafting this story and sharing it around for feedback, one of the strongest female leaders I know had wrote back with this-

Upon my return from my third parental leave, I was given the loveliest compliment from my manager. He said “ The ship didn’t sink while you were away but you were deeply missed and it wasn’t the same without you”. It was one of the most uplifting statements I have ever received.

Copy, Paste? I hope so!

Review their role

The main concern upon my return to work was IF and HOW might my role change. I needed to be closely briefed on what worked well when I was away and was worth keeping. On the flip side, what didn’t work so well and how this might affect my role currently.

Think about the last period and reflect- were there any changes in management or company-wide transformations that might create a new set of expectations from your employees? The more context and details you are able to share, the quicker you can help your employees feel confident and safe in their position.

Skip large meetings

My first week was overwhelming. I was dropped into large meetings with zero context. There were new faces, new acronyms and new jokes I wasn’t part of.

My recommendation would be to AVOID inviting your returning employees to large meetings for the first two weeks until they’ve had a chance to settle back in. During that time they would have gained more context and could confidently attend and actively participate.

Offer mental support

You might not be the touchy-feely type, and that’s ok. Assuming your employee knows you well, they would be able to smell inauthenticity a mile away so stay true to your nature but be creative and find the mental support they might need, outside of you.

Are there any other parents that are returning to the business around the same time? Put them in contact. Does your organisation work with transition coaches or mental health professionals that can be referred to? Use them as recommended resources.

If you are a manager and have read so far- kudos to you. All that’s left now is to put the wheels in motion and change the statistics.

If you are a parent who’s reading this and are finding it relatable- share this around. You too can change the statistics.

Written by Einav (Navi) McKennary. Navi is a product, experience, and communications design leader. This article was originally published under the title Welcome back mamma.

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