Employee Development

Making maternity leave work for your career and the business

Jo Lyon, Managing Director of Talking Talent

Talking Talent is the leading provider of coaching for working parents in the UK and is at the forefront of developing the female talent pipeline. Over the past three years, Talking Talent has developed an ongoing programme of workshops for women at Enterprise who are just about to leave for or return from maternity leave, as well as their managers, with the aim of ensuring a smooth transition back into the workplace.

Here, Jo Lyon, MD of Talking Talent, explains the importance of team as well as managerial support in ensuring a successful return to work after maternity leave.

My role at Enterprise over the past three years has been to help equip women and line managers with the strategies and skills that ensure maternity leave is a positive career opportunity for the individual and also enhances business performance.

This may sound like a huge undertaking. However, I am always struck by the passion that exists at all levels within Enterprise for the business, the team spirit, and the deeply rooted commitment to employee retention and development.

I have just run a series of sessions for Enterprise employees which have reinforced how important it is to think about the impact of preparing for and returning from maternity leave within the context of actual business operations.

The rental operation is a good example of this. Managers are often young, and many have never had the experience of managing a woman through maternity leave. Working hours can be long and include week-ends. Women returning to work in a smaller branch with fewer employees need support and encouragement to ensure they manage work/life balance effectively. This can be harder than it sounds.

The experience of women going on maternity and returning is largely influenced by how they are managed: by the quality of the conversations which they have with their teams and line managers and their ability to be open and honest.

In an organisation such as Enterprise, branch employees often have close knit relationships and it can in some ways feel like being part of a family. This makes for a wonderful team environment. However it can be a difficult place for women to navigate this transition effectively if they worry about the impact their maternity leave will have on the business, and how they may be viewed if they need to leave early - or even on time - when they return. Most importantly, they may worry about the impact this will have on their team and relationships within the branch.

The importance of senior leaders and line managers to champion this transition and to be role models to shape how other employees perceive and handle fellow employees who are juggling a family is especially important. Creating and behaving with a positive mind-set and with the best intentions is vital but can be challenging in a fast-moving environment.

Giving out positive messages when it’s all hands on deck and a colleague needs to leave on time requires a conscious decision. Even a simple remark such as “oh you’re leaving now” can affect the dynamic of the group and create a feeling of uncertainty for the individual.

Long work hours can be a barrier to women who are pregnant and returning. It’s important to ask, why are the hours long? Are these self-imposed, imposed by the company or imposed by perceived expectation from peers and direct reports? It might be important to redefine working patterns and unconscious expectations.

Culturally - especially if you are working in a branch where you are the first to have children and require flexibility - it can be difficult to be seen to be doing things differently. Managers need to consider how peers and teams can encourage and support someone else’s need for flexibility.

Within Enterprise, there is a genuine understanding amongst teams and team members of the long-term benefits of retaining women in the business and therefore supporting this transition. But day to day, putting this understanding into practice in a busy environment needs careful management.

There needs to be an understanding that being a supportive member of the team is not always associated with long hours. Teams need to support each other in enabling different ways of working at each stage, both pre and post maternity.

Initially, when someone is pregnant, the whole team has a duty of care to ensure she is comfortable and happy and able to manage the work within suitable hours and levels of demand.

In the late stages of maternity, managers need to check in and help support the transition by ensuring a good handover where work decreases not increases to reduce extra pressure.

Open conversations with the individual around what they are and are not able to do at each stage and how they are coping and feeling are essential. This then requires support from the broader team to help manage work hours and alternative work patterns if required.

Teams need to be open to operating differently as women move from managing the demands of being pregnant to those of having a young family.

This change will feel different both for the individual and the team and a new pattern of working will need to be established. How people work and contribute may need to be altered but this does not mean that their performance or impact will decrease. On the contrary: there are examples within Enterprise of women with children or expecting a child who achieve more than their peers and are promoted during pregnancy.

Individuals going through maternity leave and return will need to communicate clearly with their teams and managers around work patterns, styles, expectations and boundaries to ensure a smooth transition. Managers will need to endorse and ensure that proposed work patterns are set up for success and that the whole team is on board. Team members need to be prepared to accept different ways and styles of working and recognise that this is a unique time in people's lives.

Women will need to be bold to manage boundaries confidently and to be prepared to be different but to still perform effectively.

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