After nine successful years, with women making up roughly half of our 40-strong team and several one-off pregnancies under our belts, I like to think of us as a very balanced, mum-friendly agency. But despite all the right policies and forms being in place, and having all the best of intentions, when we discovered the joyous news that not one but THREE of our Account Directors were expecting at the same time, we were not fully anticipating the impact it would have on our business, or how that would affect the women concerned.
When someone is out of your business for nearly 12 months, it can be easy to forget that they're still working for you. We had a particularly busy year, and felt rather stretched. This meant there was little time for catch-ups with our mat-leavers, and relatively little planning capacity in advance of their return.
Everything we learned from this experience can be tied down to that one insight. If you allow yourself to 'forget' that even one of your team is out of the business temporarily, your preparation is likely to fail.
Learning 1: Talk. A lot.
A big mistake employers often make is to treat everyone who goes on mat-leave the same way. It seems obvious, but despite one-size-fits-all policies, women don't become one amorphous stereotype when they have babies. Equality is not ubiquity.
One simple example: we remove mat-leavers from group emails for the duration of their leave, but that policy pretty much cuts them out of agency news. The intention was good, the reality is that - for some - it meant they were out of an important social and professional loop. It made getting back up to speed on their return more difficult.
For others, an inbox stuffed with pitch updates, IT upgrades and GIFs of cats drinking beer at 4pm on a Friday would be their worst nightmare. The key is to talk to the individuals before they go on leave and agree what works for them. Then, most importantly, check in after the baby is born and at key stages throughout their leave to see if their view has changed. It may be that they'd rather just have a chat once a month to catch up, or use one of their 'Keep in Touch' days to keep up to speed every now and then.
Learning 2: Keep in Touch
It goes without saying though that invites to agency social events apply to mat-leave mums as much as full time employees. But approaching mat-leavers with work invites during their leave can seem like an unfair intrusion on this important bonding time. My advice would be to make the most of KIT days.
Our most important learning was to plan ahead and use KIT days - in the run up to a return to work - to help soften the work/life culture shock. Whether it's catching up on agency changes, (re)introducing mums to their teams or clients, or simply working out the commute time with nursery stops to make the first full day back a little less frenetic, KIT days are a valuable resource for everyone.
Learning 3: Things have changed. Adapt.
Coming back to work is a huge step for most mums - even second or third time around. There will be one or two chomping at the bit as soon as the baby is born, but for most they'll have been out of the workplace for 6-12 months and a lot will have changed. Not least them.
Flexible working arrangements that build in days off to be mum during the week (and cut down astronomical nursery fees) or shorter working hours to facilitate nursery drop-offs or pick ups can all help hugely in making work 'work' for returning mums. And most clients, many of whom will also have benefited from such flexible arrangements themselves, will welcome some boundaries in how they work with their agency teams, if it means they can benefit from the talent inherent in those mums.
It may seem like unnecessary pressure and paperwork up front, but clear and mutually agreed objectives can help returning mums feel more grounded, and manage expectations early on, on both sides. And for softer measures, however crazy busy you may be, an informal check in on days one, seven and after the first month can help surface any issues before they become real problems.
It's by no means a finite process. But adapting an approach to suit each mum - as far as is possible - can pay dividends for the business too. No doubt, with the joy of the next pregnancy announcement will come another new mum, with a new set of expectations, fears, challenges; and another opportunity to find an even better way.