Mum’s the word – flexible working conversations post pandemic

Why is returning from maternity leave a more visible struggle than ever before? Michelle Johns gives two reasons.

Returning to the workforce after maternity leave is a leading struggle women face today. The current era of the post #metoo movement and the peak of “working from home” (WFH) during the global pandemic has created an interesting scenario. This challenge is not new nor more difficult than before, but it is more visible.

Why is returning from maternity leave a more visible struggle than ever before?

There are two reasons:

  • More women feel the courage to speak up

It’s a new era for women in Australia. In 2021, women spoke up about events in parliament, setting the scene for a movement of change, catching Australia up with the #metoo movement in the US. Generating societal and community support and ultimately support from organisations.

  • The evidence that flexibility works

Throughout the global pandemic, workplaces have seen flexibility in action. Real flexibility. Whether someone stepped away from their computer during a Teams meeting to take their little one to the potty; or executives blocked out the morning to home school their children, working on the board paper after dinner, it worked. And everyone knows organisations made it work.

As life moves on after lockdowns and home-schooling, those who had children during the pandemic are commencing the path back to the workplace. Living through the global pandemic has created new expectations around flexibility; valid expectations that flexibility is a real option. The returning Mum believes negotiating something that works for themselves, and the organisation will be a relatively easy conversation. Unfortunately, this is not the experience for all Mums.

Not all organisations have caught up on the gender equality movement, nor are they all supportive of women who speak up in the workplace or the movement, in general. There are still leaders within organisations who believe in the 9-5 construct or that being in the office also means being productive. Some of these people are the decision-maker; those in management positions or positions of power. They may have a flexible working policy, but what is the common workplace practice?

Public support has influenced organisations to revisit flexible working procedures and adopt a policy where one didn’t exist. Some workplaces embraced the flexibility throughout the pandemic and have now complemented this with a policy. Others have felt the pressure, put pen to paper, and reverted to the old ways of doing things.

The Mum returning to the workplace needs to think strategically, beginning by understanding the lay of the land. Find out whether a flexible policy exists and know the contents. Seek examples of the policy working in practice and how they benefit the organisation. And identify the view of the leaders in their area of influence. Ensure the leaders support the flexible working policy, not just say they do – look for evidence.

With a policy in place and no visible examples at play, there is likely tension between the company policies and practices. Often organisations get a tick of approval for having a policy in place only. The next step for the organisation to progress flexibility is implementation. Where there is only a policy, without practice of flexibility, it can be tricky to negotiate with unsupportive leaders. Until there is visibility and traction through the leaders in your area, speak from the policy, not the practice. Discuss how you can comply. And to get real traction, identify the policymakers in your organisation. They are your allies as they have a vested interest in its implementation. Try using informal channels with the policymakers to support their quest to bring the policy to life with your flexible working negotiation.

Knowing the state of flexibility in your workplace is how you know whether to challenge the policy or the practice.

Michelle Johns, leadership coach | diversity expert | change consultant at Braveheartcoach.


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