Published on August 29, 2018
By Charlie Lyons and Genevieve Roberts
What weighs the same as three bags of sugar but will affect your career forever? A newborn baby.
But gone are the days when having children would be seen as an impediment to success. Progressive companies now realise that becoming a parent is a surefire way of enhancing skills within the office. It just involves flexibility and good communication.
Our general manager and senior copywriter both believe that hiring – and being – parents adds massive value to agency life. Here they share their views.
‘We recognise people’s value, not the hours they spend here’
– Charlie Lyons, General Manager, Beyond
A woman tells their boss they are pregnant. She or he offers huge congratulations. The boss’s mind is whirring as they think to themselves: ‘Damn, they’re now going to take a year off.’
So far, so stereotypical.
Not only is this attitude outdated, it’s also missing a trick. The bias around parents returning to work as half an employee couldn’t be more wrong. Instead we see parents in our agency using enhanced skills that they’ve learnt at home.
This has been my experience of becoming a father. I now have a greater instinct to help other people and am more in tune with how they are feeling. I’m more intuitive, patient, caring, mature – and constantly creative in getting my son to eat vegetables and go to sleep. These life skills make me better at my role.
I never hire someone specifically because they’re a working parent. But if they’re ultra talented and ultra experienced, I know that their role as a carer means that they’ll bring extra to their work. Parents spend their time nurturing their children’s talents; when we see them doing the same with their colleagues and mentoring them it benefits the whole agency.
Parents are also important for any ideas-led agency. The more diverse our staff – whether that’s gender, sexuality, socio economic background – the more different ways we see creative problems and the richer the ideas we generate. Mums and dads bring a different perspective to client challenges.
There’s always more that we can do: we’ve recently set up a diversity and inclusion council that meets regularly to talk about initiatives in the office, while our People team monitors how strategies to support working parents are being received.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt about working with parents, whether they’re joining the agency or returning after leave, is the importance of communication and constant conversation.
We have a duty as a company to celebrate parents, make the most of their skills and not to compartmentalise them. Most importantly, we’ve learnt to recognise the value that people bring to the company, rather than simply acknowledging the time that they spend here.
Here are my tips for making sure that both businesses and parents get the most out of their careers:
Come in with a plan
You’ve just had a baby. You can’t think beyond the next nap, or nappy. And that is exactly as it should be. But in months to come, when you have the space to think about work, let us know what you’d like to happen when you return from maternity or paternity leave. Or, if you’re a parent joining the agency, come in with a plan.
Be confident in what you’re bringing to the agency, and be as clear as possible about the hours you’d like to work and the value you’ll create.
Be clear about client relationships you’d like to run and responsibilities you want.
By starting that dialogue we can work with you. There are likely to be refinements, but if there’s clarity and confidence on both sides then we’ll be in business. We’re really aware that people can create massive value working three days a week.
Keep in touch
Everyone has 10 Keeping in Touch days while off on maternity leave. We believe that it’s a shared responsibility to initiate using these, rather than leaving it all to a new parent. This means that a mother returning to an agency after a year won’t be surprised by new faces. If we share new materials, send out lunch invites and keep parents included while on leave then people are less likely to feel excluded.
Importance of communication
There’s no reason why a parent returning to work should feel that their seniority, or value, is diminished in an agency. It’s open communication between a parent, their agency, clients and colleagues that stops this happening.
We want people returning from maternity leave to feel valued, secure and wanted. We know that they may be adding value in a slightly different way, but we don’t want them to feel sidelined or insecure. The responsibility is on agencies to keep communicating with their employees – it’s the only way that we get the benefit of all the skills that working parents bring to their roles.
Flexibility for all
We don’t just offer flexible working for parents, we offer it to everyone. This means that people who aren’t parents feel no resentment to those who have children, and that people can work to their own rhythm and in an environment that suits the project they are working on. Some people like to focus on deep work at home; others like the energy of the office to help generate ideas.
Our flexibility means that directors can go on extended breaks and people don’t have to use all their holiday visiting family.
When we first brought in flexible working there was a teething period: it initially felt uncomfortable not having everyone in line of sight. But we’ve found that by putting our trust in people, they work harder. And we trust in our hiring process.
Everyone in the London office gets a Slack notification each morning of who’s working outside the office so there’s never confusion. With transparent communication, there is no resentment.
‘Flexibility makes a huge difference to my life – and to my daughter’s’
-Genevieve Roberts, senior copywriter
This morning, I’ve negotiated, entertained and comforted. I’ve organised, consoled and avoided potential pitfalls – and it’s not even 9am. Yes, I’m a working parent and this is a standard morning with my amazing toddler Astrid.
And that is why companies are slowly, belatedly understanding that far from writing off people once they’ve had children, they bring more value to work.
As a solo mum, I have more ambition than before becoming a parent because it is my responsibility alone to provide for my daughter. But I’m also more openly nurturing: it’s not just my daughter who I want to see learn and grow. Peripheral vision is crucial at home so Astrid doesn’t fall down a flight of stairs, but in client meetings it helps me sense when someone in the corner of the room isn’t fully convinced. And I’m constantly creative: I’m not yet sure whether it’s easier to keep an audience of time-poor executives or of toddlers engaged.
Within Beyond, I feel this is recognised. Knowing that my work is appreciated is important to me, and here I get to contribute to big projects and my input is valued. I know that I’m lucky and that my experience is far from average countrywide.
The Scandinavian peninsula is so often seen as progressive: standards of living are excellent; childcare is inexpensive and excellent and women feel valued in their work whether they’re parents or not. I suspect the region is so forward-thinking partly because of the number of women in senior positions. Take Norway, where 40 per cent of MPs are female, third of senior management positions are filled by women and 40 per cent of all public limited company boards are female. We’re lagging in the UK, but I believe that hopefully within the next decade – and certainly by the time my daughter Astrid is grown up – flexible working will be a given and prejudice towards working parents will be history. I’m delighted to play my little part in paving the path for the next generations.
Tips for working parents
I’ve got so much yet to learn about combining work with parenthood. Here are some things that have helped me so far:
This is the most important thing: no one is ever going to hold open communication against anyone. People know what I’m doing, and show understanding, because I keep them informed.
The first week back is unlikely to be blissful
One of my closest friends adored her first week back at work: she said she even enjoyed the commute, as she had both arms to herself rather than wrapped around a toddler, and could drink coffee at leisure. I found it harder – my daughter took time to settle at nursery and I miss her during the days. But it’s really important to me to be able to work, and I’m happy to accept that, as with everything, there are highs and lows.
Accept my limitations
I’m never going to be able to do everything all the time, no one can. One downside to being a working solo mum is that it’s hard for me to join in the social side of the agency – evenings out are rare. I’ve found it easier to make my peace with this than be concerned I’m missing out. Being a parent is not a compromise, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m open about evening babysitting being tricky, Beyond is aware, and I see yoga and picnics appearing in my calendar which mean there are other ways for me to be involved in the work community. And when I am able to join a nighttime event I get to really appreciate it.
Be proud of leaving on time
If you work in Sweden and are frequently staying late in the office, colleagues will start worrying that you’re not up to your job. The UK’s culture of presenteeism is a hangover from the last century. Instead, we should respect efficiency and smart thinking. I may pick up work again when my daughter’s asleep. But I don’t sneak out the door, and am always open about leaving on time. This culture change will start with working parents, but hopefully will prove to be a bigger social shift countrywide. Many other parents feel strongly about this.
Flexibility is the future
A friend returning to work after having her daughter was unable to negotiate her senior position down from full time to four days a week; the conversation I had here started with a presumption that I would be seeking fewer hours. I know I’m really lucky, but it makes a huge difference to my quality of life, and to my daughter’s. It encourages me to offer that level of flexibility in return.
We have the technology in our lives that means we don’t have to be sitting in an office to work.
I know now that I wouldn’t be able to work for a company that wouldn’t offer flexibility, and I’d urge other parents to start looking around if they find their work life is compromising their time with their children.
My mentor told me when I returned to work that I shouldn’t say explain away any mistakes as ‘baby brain’. Firstly, they’re probably slip ups I’d have made anyway. Secondly, unless I’m going to point out each time my skills have improved because of looking after my daughter I’m basically underselling myself and encouraging people to undervalue working parents. She’s right.