Levelling the Playing Field For Parents At Work

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For me, one of my biggest fears when becoming a mother was that I might lose my identity. I became pregnant whilst working as a Press Officer writing speeches for executives, attending Treasury Select Committee Hearings with senior management and holding press conferences. I knew it would soon be replaced by nappies, NCT meetings and sleep deprivation. In truth, I thought that the upward trajectory of my career would be replaced by a plateau (at best).


After my first child, I decided to come back to work after only eight months, eager to prove that nothing had changed. I was still exactly the same person after having my boy; keen to appear professional. But things had changed. During maternity leave I had moved to Wales to be closer to my family. Travelling to the office consisted of a six hour round trip starting at 3:30am – quite literally miles away from my accustomed 20 minute stroll from Wapping to the square mile. It was a tough gig but one that worked (in a round-about way) for me and my family. I didn’t want to leave my job but I also wanted my children to know their grandparents.


As a child, I was brought up by my stay at home Dad (which was really quite something in the 80’s) as my Mum went back to university. They instilled in me a philosophy that: if you work hard enough, anything is possible.


Personally, I have so many pushes and pulls in my life, with three children (five and under). If you are a parent / carer, you will agree that time is no longer your own. We are all carrying around several people’s daily routines in our heads as well as our own.  But it means you focus more on the job in hand and the outputs of a task rather than the amount of hours spent on something. Being a parent can make you smarter with your time but to truly get the best out of flexible working, we need to be geared-up – like a well-oiled machine! Diaries need to set out when you are in or out of the office. We should push-back on meetings for the sake of meetings and last minute changes to diaries (where possible). An assortment of communication channels is a must. When sitting at your desk, casual conversations can provide nuance and much needed colour that a formal meeting just can’t provide. To an extent, this can be mimicked with instant messenger and video conferencing. But crucially, the cogs turn much more smoothly when we are inclusive and open, accepting of one another’s differing situations.


One thing I really did benefit from, during the 3 hour coach journey back to Wales, was space. Sometimes doing less, paradoxically, can allow you to achieve more. I recently read an article which explained that the pre-frontal cortex (higher brain) is activated when you are in a still state. When you think you are doing nothing, you could be at your most creative! Do you remember the incredibly long journeys in the back of the car as a child? If you are anything like me, you’d be staring out of the window and transporting yourself into a dream-world.  In my downtime, I paint. My coach journeys home from London would be my ‘composition time’ so when I got home I could quickly pick up a paintbrush and see it all come to life. I think there is something to be said around pressing the pause button and the effect it can have on your overall efficiency and output. The pandemic provided us with a sense of perspective and I hope this ‘big picture’ thinking doesn’t erode over time. We all need to take some time for ourselves. It’s important to remember what’s really important.


In my opinion, the Covid-19 pandemic pulled the rug from under us all and was (to some extent) a much needed catalyst for change. Do you remember the Robert Kelly BBC News interview?  Having a child dance into the room in perfect comic timing was considered GIF-worthy. The video went viral. Would that be the case now? During lockdown, all our children / pets were habitually acting as ‘extras’ on our Zoom calls. The pandemic has forced our hand to be more progressive and accepting of our lives outside the office. The veil between work and home-life was pierced during lockdown and that, to me, was not necessarily a bad thing.


The silver lining of the pandemic has meant that many can feel back on a level playing-field. I’m an extreme example (living quite so far away from the office) but I am sure there are many parents out there who feel that flexible working will afford them many more career opportunities than before. As an example, I have just enrolled onto an MBA degree at Exeter University, as the course is now fully online.


In my first job my manager raised his eyebrows when I asked to work from home one afternoon to let the gas man into my flat. Thankfully, the world has changed and more flexible working has become the norm. That’s not say I champion a completely home-working environment, I don’t. There is a balance to be struck. But for my part, I think ways of working should be framed much more so around output and productivity.


The world is flexing – becoming more human and humble. For me, enabling parents and supporting their careers means making advancements in flexible and hybrid working policies, introducing transitional working patterns for new parents, pursuing the expansion of regional offices and ensuring we are equipped with a variety of communication channels, so staff always feel connected and not isolated as we start to work across different spaces. Most importantly, seeing is believing. I’m talking about role-modelling. It’s great to be able to read blogs and watch podcasts so we can all better connect with our senior management. But more than this, it’s about being about to see individuals whom you can truly relate to in a position of leadership.


Adapting and flexing within a more human and humble framework can, and will, make a huge difference to working parents such as myself – focusing on quality of output whilst allowing parents/ carers to take ownership of their careers once more.


Blog Written By Tara O’Neill

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