People management : Women in Transition – Returning to Work After Maternity Leave

New Zealand’s tight labour market means many organisations are struggling not only for new talent but also to retain the staff they have. One worrying area of attrition is women leaving the workforce to have children and not returning. But research from Auckland-based executive coaching company Altris shows there are many ways firms can overcome this – to both their, and the woman’s, advantage.
Women make up 46.9 percent of the New Zealand workforce and 85 percent of paid working women have children. In order to work out what support should be offered to help women either embarking on maternity leave or wanting to return to work after leave, Altris carried out research to see:
• What are transitioning women’s concerns and what support is currently provided to them?
• What lessons can be learned from those who have transitioned well (or not)?
• What can New Zealand business learn and do to assist?
Respondents’ main concerns were around childcare arrangements (nanny or daycare; where; how much will it cost etc); impact on work-life balance (How will I integrate my baby into my life and work?); and being able to manage the workload (I won’t be able to stay on for an extra hour or for late meeting if I need to pick up my baby from childcare. What impact will this have on my ability to do what needs to be done at work?).
The main form of support mentioned was flexible working arrangements (eg, part-time working; starting later and/or finishing earlier etc). One fifth of respondents felt they had been offered no support by their organisations – but it is unclear if this was because of lack of awareness of what was provided, rather than no support actually being available (perception versus reality). Regular communications, early appointment of replacement and planned handover period were among other types of support mentioned.
Before women left an organisation on maternity leave, the main areas that would have helped them plan for the time away were: structured transition plan; information about parental leave; having replacement appointed and sufficient time to hand over to them.
While away from the organisation the focus shifted to desire for regular communication with the organisation about changes and updates.
A structured transition plan to assist in return to the workforce was also identified as important, as was the handover from the replacement who had been carrying out the role. Access to an independent confidante (eg, internal or external coach) and ‘buddy’ (a woman who has recently returned to the organisation after having child) were also identified as likely to be of help.
Responses were received from over 170 women across number of industries – fast moving consumer goods; legal; retail; university; and financial services. Forty-six percent were managers, 54 percent employees.

Bell Gully business development manager Karen Chan is planning to leave work soon and take 12 months maternity leave (since this interview took place, she has had her son).
“When I told them I was pregnant I proposed transition plan. I had done lot of reading into what works best and discovered that returning part-time or with flexible hours was lot better for both mother and child. My husband encouraged me to look into what would work best for women and children and that’s when I found it felt better to be organised and proactive about the whole thing. So I proposed plan which had 12 months off my normal role, but saw me coming back after six months to do project work. That would be morning or two week, we’re being flexible on that. What I proposed feels like good way to transition back – just to let me and my child get used to things.
“I’ve had very supportive manager. He’s new father himself and I think that has helped.”
Chan and her husband haven’t decided on childcare plans for when she returns to work, but with supportive employers they are confident suitable arrangement will be found.

Joanne Fair, senior human resources manager with Fonterra, took four months away from work with both her pregnancies, and has now transitioned back to work full-time. Her husband is stay-at-home father.
“I didn’t have any concerns about wanting to return to work. It was more the practical things like how you juggle timetables and demands when you have people relying on you to be mother – and also give your best at work. It was really important to me that I felt I could be good mother and good employee – not letting anybody down.
“I’ve been lucky in having support but, and this applies to most women I talk to, it’s really hard to feel that you are putting enough in at home and when you’re at work. You’re always compromising and juggling one or the other and you just hope you can get the balance right most of the time. I’ve been really lucky with my employer too. It’s not so much that I’ve needed any additional support, it’s knowing that if I did need it then it would be there.
“After my first baby. I actually started back working from home couple of days week, but that didn’t work well for me as I wanted to be focused on my daughter when I was at home, not on work. So I started going into the office as it was easier to be focused on work if I was at work.
“In the first few weeks after having both babies, work wasn’t important to me then as my focus was on being mum. But after that then I was interested. Work emailed me updates and I could respond if I chose. For women I know who have taken longer away from the office being kept in touch with what’s going on there has been very important to them. So even if you choose not to respond to emails or do anything, I think it’s really important to be valued and kept informed.”

Greta Yardley is currently on maternity leave from her role as communications and channel manager at Yellow Pages Group. (Her baby Madeleine is featured in these pictures.)
“I took 12 months’ leave. We have to give three weeks’ notice if we want to return to work earlier and, at the moment, I am really missing the mental stimulation. In way, I’m itching to get back.”
Her team has been changed and restructured during her maternity leave, something she says makes it harder to feel in touch with work. “My manager has changed and that’s tricky as we had an excellent working relationship and of course it will be harder starting back with new manager.
“While I’m not ready to go back full-time I have proposed picking up some project work as way of getting back into things. It works well for the company too as there is no ‘getting to know the business time’ as there is when you hire an external contractor.
“I think with first-time baby, in the first few weeks it’s also important the new fathers are looked after at work. I might be doing the night duties at home, but my husband still has disturbed nights and many new challenges, yet he is expected to perform at 100 percent at work. His employers have been very supportive, but that’s something I think needs to be taken into account too.
“I don’t feel pressured to respond to emails from work, because I’m not working, but I do like to know what’s going on.”

Jayne Muller is partner in Altris and was responsible for the research project. She has two pre-school daughters and works part-time.
“I didn’t really take any time off with the first one. But I worked part-time and I worked from home running the business. I did contract people to help me out for four or five months and then I got back into it myself slowly.
“It took me while to feel that I was back up to full speed and performance. We juggled various childcare arrangements and work situations and it sometimes felt that as soon as something was sorted then there’d be change and I’d think, oh no this is going to have to be reorganised. I work from home and sometimes I felt that if I could have gone to an office for set hours then it would have been easier. In many ways it was great being flexible, but it also put lot o

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