Returning from maternity leave is a challenging time for any mother. After what is often a year spent in an equally hard but very different role, the prospect of returning to the workplace can be fraught with mixed emotions. Amid the excitement of seeing colleagues and getting stuck in is the pull of being without your child and doubts over what your role will look like 12 months on.
Difficult enough, but over the past year marketing mothers have been returning to work in their living rooms, spare bedrooms and on kitchen tables. Rather than catching up with colleagues over a coffee, new mums have been rebooting their computers in a world of Zoom calls and Teams messages, in some cases with team members they’ve never met in real life.
Statistics highlight the stark impact the pandemic has had on mothers. A survey of 3,686 mothers and pregnant women, carried out in June by campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, found 7.7% of pregnant women expected to be made redundant and 20% believed their pregnancy was a factor.
The data also revealed 8.1% of pregnant women had been suspended from work on incorrect terms, including sick pay, no pay, enforced annual leave or put on maternity leave early.
There have been pressures on so many levels for returning mothers, from negotiating furlough and dealing with redundancy, to adjusting to life spent speaking to a screen and leading teams via Zoom.
Henkel marketing director for laundry and home care brands, Nikki Vadera, gave birth a week before the first lockdown. She remembers the crisis starting to erupt and the wards being cleared for Covid patients.
I always envisaged coming back after maternity leave and walking through the office and seeing my team and giving them a big hug.
Nikki Vadera, Henkel
Once the first couple of months passed following her daughter’s birth, Vadera chose to keep in contact with the team, alongside her ‘keeping in touch’ (KIT) days. She communicated with the business about her path back to work and kept up to date with internal comms about how the company was reacting to the pandemic.
A big supporter of flexible working prior to her pregnancy, Vadera was used to working from home once or twice a week. However, after a year away and an unexpected maternity leave that prevented her seeing friends and family, she was itching for some adult interaction and the chance to define what sort of mum she wanted to be.
“I always envisaged coming back after maternity leave and walking through the office and seeing my team and giving them a big hug and having a cup of coffee and a catch up. To not have that was really hard, especially because I’m such a people person,” she explains.
When she returned in February, Vadera wanted to ensure she was completely up to date on email, while her diary was back-to-back with meetings from day one. Her mat cover left two days before she returned, so there wasn’t any crossover, although she had used her KIT days for handovers.
“The challenge with my seniority level is it’s always ‘go, go, go’. There’s a lot of expectation at this level and I was keen to come back and be the high performer I was before,” Vadera adds.
“It was very important to me that having a baby would not have any impact on my career, my development and the way I perform.”
While in hindsight, she admits it might have been better to clear her diary for the first week and settle back in with the team, Vadera made it work. She operated on the basis that there is no such thing as a stupid question. So, for example, she would ask if she didn’t know how to share her screen on Teams, something very few of us knew how to do before March 2020.
Dealing with disorientation
Amy Briggs relates to the feeling of trying to get to grips with Teams, eight months after the rest of your team have mastered it.
Head of marketing at sustainable supply chain company Tiger Global, Briggs returned from maternity leave in November and found the sense of remoteness created by the pandemic made her transition more difficult.
“It’s bit overwhelming coming back anyway, but then when you overlay everything else that’s going on it emphasises that more, so you don’t feel like you can get your teeth stuck in as quickly as normal. You have to schedule these meetings with people rather than just picking up in the office and grabbing 10 minutes here and there,” she explains.
“In terms of not meeting the team, that’s strange. We had a digital marketing manager join the team and I’ve got an intern who now reports into me who joined the business in February this year. So, there are two team members I talk to every day and haven’t actually physically met.”
Her return was made easier by the amount of effort put in by the business ahead of time. On her first day she had a meeting with the operations manager and was given a back to work pack containing all the passwords and information on system changes. Catch up meetings with all the team members had been put in her diary, meaning that within the first hour Briggs was getting back up to speed.
“The thing with returning from maternity leave is you just want to get cracking because you’ve been away from the business and you want to show that you add the value. You want the opportunity to do that in the easiest and quickest way possible,” she points out.
“I wanted to hit the ground running and the work the team had done allowed me to do that.”
On her return, Briggs noticed the pandemic had shifted the emphasis in the business away from print advertising and events towards digital marketing. This change of tactics meant tapping into a different skillset, which at times made her return more disorientating.
“It’s that lost feeling, because suddenly everything you knew, everything you’ve trained for, the way you plan activations, the way you look at campaigns, all of that had to immediately change. That takes a bit of time to adapt and people who’ve been working throughout the pandemic are a significant amount of time ahead of you,” says Briggs.
“It’s trying to play catch up when you come back on a significant scale, more than what it would have been normally.”
When you feel disorientated the best thing to do is cut yourself some slack and realise that, in different ways, everyone is out of their depth with the current situation, she adds. Returning marketers might, if anything, be better prepared to deal with such change.
“The very nature of marketing is it’s constantly changing, the way we do things, the technology coming through,” says Briggs. “We have the advantage that we’re adaptable. We need to give ourselves credit for that. Start with what you know and work backwards.”
While some mothers are returning to well defined roles and a burgeoning remit, others have had to face furlough and redundancy.
Freya Swenson Costello went on maternity leave in August 2019 from her role as an account manager at a digital agency. She used the first six months or so to focus on raising her son, before reaching out to the company in the summer to chat about her return. Conversations had kicked off about furlough, with other employees having already been put on the job retention scheme.
When it was confirmed she was being furloughed in August, Swenson Costello had mixed feelings. On one hand it meant she could spend more time at home with her son, on the other hand the return to work was a chance to “be Freya again”.
Then in October, she was made redundant, part of a generation of marketers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own because of Covid-19. Swenson Costello remembers the agency bosses being upset about having to make her redundant, but explaining the changes were caused by the pandemic.
“I had an inkling it might happen, but when it does happen it’s still a bit of a shock and the rug is pulled out from under your feet. You ask: ‘What do I do now?’” Swenson Costello explains.
It’s bit overwhelming coming back anyway, but then when you overlay everything else that’s going on it emphasises that more.
Amy Briggs, Tiger Global
She went to her network of friends and family, reaching out to former clients, bosses and colleagues to ask what they liked about working with her and if there were any areas she could improve on. The feedback gave her real confidence.
As a result, Swenson Costello went freelance with her business Freya Helps Me, working on a retainer or on one-off projects for SMEs.
Her advice for mothers returning to the remote workplace is to tap into the strength of their wider network and gain a sense of community by joining groups such as the Mums in Marketing group on Facebook.
“Find some other mums who are in a similar situation and just reach out and ask people. I’ve found with other mums it’s like another level, you join a new club. There is so much support from other mums and they just want to help because they’ve been through it themselves,” says Swenson Costello.
Change is needed within business culture to make returning from maternity leave easier for mothers. Executive coach Leila Travis calls for a mixture of empathy, clear communication and a blame free culture.
“Empathy is very easy in my view. It’s about acknowledgment, asking questions, asking what support mothers’ need, but there’s the practical stuff too,” she says. “If the practical support is not there, that can be interpreted as a lack of empathy. What can seem like very small gestures can actually make the world of difference.”
This could mean paying for childcare so the mother can make the most of her KIT days, as well as having conversations ahead of her return that help her get reacquainted with the team, which alleviates anxiety.
Travis suggests that, especially in the current context, managers could ask if returning mothers want inductions and meetings with key people putting in place, without overwhelming them with back-to-back calls on their first day.
The advice is to build social time into their schedules and space for returning mothers to adjust. It is also crucial to ensure returnees have the tech they need and feel fully supported, given remote working can be a shock to the system.
If the practical support is not there, that can be interpreted as a lack of empathy.
Another idea is to buddy returning mums up with someone else in the business and for managers to organise frequent one-to-one sessions, offering the chance to ask questions.
“Sometimes in big corporates it can be really hard to access your boss. There might be a lot of things you’re trying to get your head around and you don’t want to be a nuisance, because at the moment you have to schedule everything. You can’t just swing by someone’s desk and ask,” Travis points out. “That should be led by your boss.”
She also notes the sense of pressure to prove yourself when returning from mat leave, especially at a time when the returnee’s confidence may have taken a knock. Not getting the right support can exacerbate confidence issues. Empathetic leaders, however, will be putting themselves in the shoes of the retuning mothers.
“Imagine you’ve been looking after a child for a year, you’re returning to work during the pandemic and when you left you were commuting into the office every day. Put yourself in their shoes and remember the start of the pandemic,” Travis suggests.
“You’ve suddenly gone from office life to everybody working from home. Some people are feeling isolated, missing the social dynamic and it was an adjustment for everyone. Think of it from the point of view of someone returning after mat leave. They’ve got a year where they’ve been doing a completely different job and now they are going through that huge change everybody else went through, but we went through it together.”
Henkel’s Vadera is proud of being an empathetic leader, as well as a mum who has returned amid Covid-19. She sees it as her duty to act as a role model in the business and move the agenda forward for working parents. Someone in her team, for example, went on maternity leave just three months after her and they are currently planning out her return.
“One of the things she said to me is that she feels so lucky she has a manager who has just gone through what she’s going through three months before, because I have the understanding of what it’s like to have a baby in a pandemic, to have maternity leave in a pandemic and return to work in a very different environment,” Vadera explains.
She argues that pregnancy should no longer be a taboo topic and companies that are serious about attracting and retaining the best talent should take it seriously, or risk losing future leaders.
Travis agrees there is a danger brands that aren’t actively committed to supporting working parents could miss out on talent who will bypass businesses which have that kind of reputation. This leads to the loss of female role models, a widening gender pay gap and could contribute to women leaving the profession altogether.
“If you imagine your confidence is probably at its lowest at that point [when you return]. If businesses take this seriously and give the right support, they can build that confidence. You should be building that confidence back up, it shouldn’t be going the other way,” Travis adds.
“When it starts to go the other way, that is when you lose talent.”