Our latest blog post sees Clare Pepper, regional lead from our North West consultancy team, discuss the challenges of starting a new role and returning from maternity leave, all during the challenging time of COVID-19.
Roll back a year to when my husband and I were planning our approach to parental leave, never could I have imagined how I would feel coming back in to work – especially not during a time like this. My experience of motherhood is so deeply different to what my pragmatic assessment ahead of time predicted. “I’ll do six months, we will have a month together, then you can have six months – that’s fair isn’t it? I’ll be ready to come back after that long off”. Roll on a year and I find myself as a new mum, in a new job, in a new work-environment. Over the last year I have gone through ups and downs, twists and turns and emotional (and hormonal!) rollercoasters which have left me slightly dizzy.
I started with NECS at the end of May, the week my little boy turned 8 months. I had worked with some of the team last year before I went on maternity leave so there are some familiar faces and known quantities across the consultancy team. However, starting a new job when you can’t meet your team face to face, have a common office space or have that 10-minute “What the heck does this mean” catch up in the office kitchen has been a bit strange. Not good, not bad, just strange. I find it hard to separate out the impact of Covid and remote working from the adjustment of coming back from maternity – the two are so intertwined in how they have shaped my experience and made working life fundamentally different from how it’s ever been before.
When I started the role I was excited by the prospect of not needing to dig out all my work gear (mainly because I wouldn’t then need to face up to the reality of my daily oreo habit!). As soon as I began, the first thing that hit me was how well the team have adapted to the remote ways of working. Regular catch ups via Teams and more frequent cross-regional team meetings made me quickly feel part of it all. Heartfelt and genuine “Call me whenever you need to chat” have been welcomed and many unsuspecting victims have received my meandering and rambling calls, thinly veiled with a specific ask to give the call ‘purpose’. The type of discussion that would usually be covered over lunch or while waiting for a kettle to boil (the chats that help to address unanswered questions and unpick the softer cultural and relational dynamics of a team) now happen via the laptop while getting in many ways more insight in to how others live than you would do normally through the ever-strange Teams-room-surveying. So instead of team building through tea breaks, my trips to the kitchen are now studded with baby tears and separation anxiety-induced tantrums. All to the backdrop of my husband’s slightly anguished face as he bites his tongue and stops himself from saying “I look after you all day and you STILL only want your mum!”.
I wanted to work for NECS because the values of the team so greatly align with my own and I felt I could find a balance here. I was right – I have been able to, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It just practically looks quite different to what I imagined – both because of Covid and because of parenthood. When I talk to people (in or out of work) about my situation the responses clearly fall in to one of two camps – the “must be lovely to see more of your family” and the “must be hard to create the right separation and focus”. Both are true. There are as many positives as there are negatives of the situation for us – no commute – great, not leaving the house during the day – horrible; getting cuddles at lunchtime – wonderful, trying to concentrate when a baby is crying in the next room – torturous. I could go on. The quick summary however is that I truly think it balances out – and one way or another it’s the current reality, so lets get on with it. As I reflect on how my experience has been I find it very easy to think about all the points I’ve described and not about the job in itself. I enjoy the work we do, I value the team members I have, I am excited about the opportunities the job presents. And maybe that’s all that matters?
There are three pieces of advice I would give anyone else starting work at this time, whether returning from maternity leave or otherwise. Firstly, agree principles not rules: one of the biggest advantages this way of working provides is flexibility – however to work effectively and happily we must still be aware of one another’s boundaries and respect them. This may be less time-based and office-bound and therefore lend themselves well to principle-based discussions. Secondly, replace the time you would usually commute with positive activities which help you be at your best – whether that be reflection or preparation time, exercise or anything else. Commuting typically book-ends our day and helps with separation, in it’s place we can build positive habits. And finally, remember this will soon be a new habit and we will forget how it was before, the more you can do to embrace the present the easier that transition will be.