Roisin Ashmore, a Consultant specialising in HR recruitment at Totum, went on maternity leave in September 2019. The world was very different back then… In this piece, she describes returning to a workplace transformed by the pandemic and shares her advice for others following the same steps, as well as for firms seeking to support mums returning from maternity leave in these strange times.

I recently returned to work as a Consultant at Totum, following maternity leave with my second baby. When I left in 2019, everything was business as normal. No-one could have possibly foreseen the strange and scary turns that 2020 would take. Lockdowns, social distancing, face masks, working from home, virtual meetings, all underpinned by the constant threat of a disease that none of us could predict or plan around.

Nevertheless, I was lucky. I happen to work at a firm that is fantastic in terms of its understanding, flexibility and support for new parents. When Covid hit, it wasn’t long before Totum announced it would be allowing the team to work half the time remotely on a permanent basis. It’s a firm that’s always had an agile mindset and I knew this would help enormously as my maternity leave came to an end.

That doesn’t make everything easy, though. I remember a colleague telling me that it took her a good six months to fully get back into the swing of things – this was so comforting to hear, and a great source of strength, as I think a lot of returning mothers feel they should be back up to speed from the get-go. You want to prove you’ve still got what it takes – that having a child won’t impact your performance or career development. And it shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need support or reassurance in those early days when self-confidence can be at a low ebb.

A new working world

Returning to a pandemic world adds new challenges too. You need to understand new workplace rules and processes if and when allowed back to the office – while also quickly getting used to virtual tools and home working, which is very different in lockdown when you’re full time at home and can’t mix it up with a few days in the office to reset. You return to a world in which you don’t get to meet up properly with colleagues again – when a big part of settling back into things is feeling part of the team once more, enjoying the chat, sharing ideas and, for new mums, rediscovering the delights of adult conversation. It doesn’t help either if you feel you’re trailing behind colleagues who have had so much longer to acclimatise to the new way of doing things.

With my husband also working from home, we had to rethink our set-up to ensure we both had space to work and make calls – not easy when you’re also sharing your house with young children. For those with very little space and/or poor home broadband, I can only imagine what a nightmare this must have been over a sustained period.

Benefits of flexibility

But there have been some advantages. My first maternity leave ended with the shock of having to get my son into childcare before I even started my commute. Leaving the house in the dark of those very early mornings and worrying if trains/buses were delayed on the way home isn’t something I miss. Similarly, I have found that with so many of us homeworking, we’ve got much better at working virtually and ensuring everyone is included in the conversation no matter where they are based. In my view, workplace flexibility will be one of the most lasting and positive impacts of the pandemic.

Tips for success

But there are also areas of returning to work after maternity leave where I think both individuals and firms can make the process easier:

  1. In these times of on-going restrictions, it is vital that firms have support processes in place for those returning from maternity leave. Agree a return to work plan as early as possible, take advantage of the virtual environment to set up some meetings that can get conversations flowing again, and ensure that returning mums are invited to all relevant group meetings (and social events) that will help them feel part of the team.
  2. Prioritise wellbeing and mental health. Many returning mothers will be fearful of leaving their babies for the first time, no matter how much they are looking forward to getting back into the fray. They may feel this even more in this uncertain world of Covid. Be understanding and ensure that you ask how they are getting on and give reassurance. The greatest policies in the world may not be as effective as just saying, ‘you’re doing great’.
  3. If you are returning to work, start thinking about your return to work sooner rather than later. Keep in touch with work colleagues, not just about work but life in general. I happen to live near a colleague who I regularly meet for walks in the park. We talk about work but it’s connecting as friends that’s been more important to helping me get back into things.
  4. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you are struggling. This is one of the strangest years any of us have ever faced. If you’re finding it hard to cope or have any anxieties related to Covid and your return to work following maternity, then share your concerns with your manager or a trusted colleague. Since March, we’ve noticed how much firms are trying to prioritise wellbeing and mental health, so you should find yourself in relatively good hands.
  5. Enjoy the fact that Covid has likely changed the workplace forever. When so many people shifted to homeworking it was an eyeopener for all businesses – much more can be achieved from home than was previously thought possible. You now have the advantage of all that learning and have no need to fear asking for the flexibility you need both for your immediate return to work as well as for the longer term while you continue to have childcare responsibilities.

Sadly, we have all seen a very tough start to 2021, but with growing numbers of vaccinated people, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For those of us returning from maternity leave, there will remain challenges to overcome but there are reasons to be hopeful that the future will be brighter and will present a truly flexible workplace to the benefit of all.

If you would be interested in talking further with Roisin about maternity and flexibility in the professional services sector, or just to chat about current people and HR market trends and opportunities, contact Roisin at [email protected].

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