Written by Chris Davis
The arrival of new baby is an exciting time for any parent. For many new mothers, as the primary caregiver, balancing the joys of motherhood with the transition back to work can however be a challenging experience. Many mums want to do it all. They want to be the world’s best mother and at the same time resume their careers and work responsibilities where they left off. The unfortunate outcome for many maternity returners is that they struggle in both areas. However, with organizations increasingly focusing on the value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, employers that offer flexible return-to-work options can reduce the pressure on new mums returning to the workplace and, in the process, reduce the risk of losing a skilled employee.
“Attrition for almost any reason is a business cost, so why should one cause of attrition be treated any differently than another?” asks Jennifer Van Dale, Partner and Head of Asia Pacific Employment at Eversheds Sutherland who cites not only the cost of hiring and settling in of a new staff member, but also the loss of skills, and knowledge of company culture and processes.
While compliance with legal obligations can help organizations to structure maternity leave policies, Van Dale believes by initiating conversations between employer and employees before, during and after maternity leave can alleviate some of the challenges women returning from maternity leave face, while helping organizations to retain talent. For example, by discussing preferences for keeping new mums up to speed on what’s happening while they are on maternity leave, employers can demonstrate they are serious about offering a workplace culture that new mothers want to return to. Although it is not possible to anticipate everything in advance of a baby’s arrival, Van Dale believes that proactive conversations can help to remove the misconception that motherhood and career are in direct conflict with each other. “Being a mother does not mean being any less competent or committed than fathers in the workplace,” says Van Dale.
Once they return to work, according to Van Dale, one of the most common challenges new mums traversing the maternity phase face is requesting flexible working arrangements. This could mean a part-time, phased return to work, but for others it maybe a change to start and finish times, or the ability to work from home. Whatever the solution, Van Dale says, the mother should not be made to feel she is neglecting her career or work commitments. The request for flexible work is a sign that the employee is committed to her work and wants to ensure she can do it. “With a flexible return-to-work plan in place, the question of “how do I do a good job at work and still find the time to meet the needs of my child”, can be taken off the table,” says Van Dale, who gave birth to her three children in the space of three years and knows first-hand what it feels like to feel “stretched” between work and parental commitments.
Being a mother does not mean being any less competent or committed than fathers in the workplace.”Jennifer Van Dale, Eversheds Sutherland
If employers choose to do one thing to help new mums and primary caregivers readjust when they return to work after maternity leave, Anita Davis, Principal – Public Affairs, at global investment firm KKR Asia says, it would be to offer the flexibility to manage work routines in a way that suits their schedules. For example, being able to leave the office before 6pm and spend a few hours of quality time with her son, before logging on remotely or taking work-related calls from home in the evenings has helped her to balance work and parenting commitments.
“Ultimately, the ability to work from home or duck out of the office when needed – and without penalty – can really help a new parent enhance efficiency and minimize stress,” says Davis who explains that a lot of her work is event-driven and there are times when she needs to work late or on weekends. She says managing those moments has helped her to put into perspective, cherish and take advantage of the times that are more relaxed. “I’ve adopted the approach of trying to do my best both at home and at work, and to be kinder to myself when I don’t meet my own expectations – which is inevitable as a sleep-deprived new parent!”
While she enjoys her fast-paced job, the regional scope of the work and the level of responsibility and working with colleagues, like many working mums returning to the workplace, Davis found the experience a little bit bumpy. “I wanted to return to work fulltime, but I also wanted to make that fulltime role work for me and my family,” she says. Currently expecting her second child this summer, for both her pregnancies, Davis informed her boss, HR team and global team early on what to expect. “A big part of taking maternity leave in peace is knowing that your role is covered by a colleague, a secondee or through another solution.”
Davis says she is fortunately to work for an organization that has implemented a number of initiatives to support working mothers and primary caregivers. In addition to increasing paid leave for new mothers and primary caregivers from 12 to 16 weeks, KKR has established a transition support program for primary and nonprimary caregivers who are expecting a child. The Hong Kong office also has a dedicated space for pumping and storing breast milk. Another incentive designed to help mothers of newborn’s return to the workplace is a firm-paid Childcare Travel Program that gives primary caregivers the option of taking their baby and childcare provider on essential business-related travel until the baby’s first birthday.
Sharing similar sentiments about the value of flexibility, Jingyi Li Blank, Managing Director and Head of Hong Kong at security and corporate investigations firm Mintz Group, says working for an organization that values performance and deliverables over presenteeism enables her to integrate her work with her parenting responsibilities. “Fortunately, I work for an organization that looks at business metrics and is open-minded to different work arrangements for all employees,” says Blank, a mother of a two-and-half year-old son and a six-month-old daughter.
Promoted to head of the Hong Kong office when her son was about a year old and then to Partner a year later with two young children, Blank explains she has had two slightly different maternity leave and return-to-work experiences as a case manager and as an office head. “When my son was born I planned to return to work full time in the office within three months, but I was a little too optimistic,” says Blank, who requested a further three months of working from home. “Working from home gave me the autonomy and flexibility to juggle work and family. My company agreed to evaluate my performance based the quality of my investigations and client response, and it worked out well,” says Blank. During her second maternity leave, as head of the Hong Kong office with team oversight and client responsibility, she opted to work from home over a longer period of five months. This flexibility still allowed ample time for Blank to conduct important meetings and oversee the team. “Fulfilling work responsibilities is so much easier these days with technology,” says Blank.
Blank is proud that she has integrated working moms into her close-knit team. “We are very efficient and cover for each other, and we perform at the top of our industry. And we all live full lives. I strive to create an office environment that’s supportive of working moms both day-to-day and in their career advancement.”
The ability of the line manager to discuss back-to-work transitions is often pivotal to the make or break success of an employee returning from maternity leave.”Nerice Gietel, The Career Lounge
Nerice Gietel, certified executive coach and founder of The Career Lounge, which offers coaching programmes that support individuals to better navigate their careers at various stages in life — including after becoming a parent — advises that training line managers how to manage employees returning from maternity leave can be a positive step for organizations that not only want to be more inclusive, but retain their hard-to-find, high-performing female talent. “It’s a familiar story,” Gietel says. “The ability of the line manager to discuss back-to-work transitions is often pivotal to the make or break success of an employee returning from maternity leave,” says Gietel who adds that she is continually surprised by how few companies pay attention to this area.
Gietel points out how it is common for line managers to shy away from conversations for fear of being inappropriate or simply because they are unaware of the range of challenges new mums encounter when they return to the workplace. Lack of awareness can also include an absence of knowledge around what is and isn’t expected or allowed in terms of flexible working arrangements from a company policy and legal perspective. “Providing managers with training to ensure they are comfortable having conversations that support new mums through a major life transition can help to avoid a breakdown in the working relationship,” Gietel says. Furthermore, a smooth transition that works for both the employee and the organization can strengthen maternity returner retention rates.