How to return to work – for Jacinda and others

When I had my first baby the first few months flew by in a sleep deprived, wonder filled, I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing daze. As the day loomed closer for me to leave my beloved bundle of joy and go back to work, I didn’t give it much thought.

Truth be told, I believed this returning to work malarkey would be a total cinch. (A bit like how I was an expert at child rearing until I was faced with my son’s first gargantuan tantrum in the supermarket – but that’s a story for another day).

In my mind’s eye, I would glide effortlessly into the office on my first day early, wearing an (unstained) crisp white shirt and oozing serene professionalism. I’d be as prepared as a girl scout on badge day, ready to nail whatever project that awaited me.

“I am woman, hear me roar!” would be my working woman anthem. My work colleagues would ooh and aah over my baby pics as I expertly chaired the Monday morning meeting, safe in the knowledge that my precious son was cooing happily in the hands of the nanny.

Ha! The reality was altogether far messier, tear stained, and snot ridden. And that was just me.

If there was a T-shirt slogan which depicted the reality of my first day back to work, it would be “Fraught with Annihilated Expectations.”

Returning to employment after parental leave can bring all manner of teeth gnashing – and not just for you. Many employers are also ill equipped and unsure when it comes to successfully navigating your back to work transition.

If only my boss and I had communicated and planned a bit more BEFORE that fateful first day, I think it would have been more ‘smooth sailing’ than ‘train crash’.

Here are seven things you can do to nail your back to work transition:

(Jacinda, I’m sure you’ve got it covered, but you might want to take a squizz too)

  1. Going back to work starts before you go back to work! At least 3-4 weeks before D Day, sit down and plan out some key milestones and what success will look like for you at each milestone. Don’t leave it all up to your boss or HR to do this – there are benefits (mentally and practically) for you to do this exercise.

For your first day back at work, it might be something like:

a) Get to work on time, with baby sorted, in a calm manner, preferably without baby snot on my collar (this is no mean feat, believe me).

b) Meet with my direct manager to get on the same page about focus, expectations and goals for the first week and month.

c) Successfully login to the computer and make sure that all the other tools of the trade like the phone are sorted. (Again, no mean feat. I’ve even heard of one poor woman who turned up and there was no desk space for her. Talk about a welcome back!)

d) Have that afternoon tea with the team and show those baby photos!

  1. Work backwards. Once you’ve written your ‘ideal outcome list’ for the first day, week and month, then comes the next critical step. Work backwards as to what you need to do and who you need to communicate with to turn that picture into a reality – not a pipedream.
  1. Assess your potential challenges, roadblocks and vulnerabilities. What changes have happened whilst you’ve been away that you need to come up to speed on? Who are any new key stakeholders you don’t know? What technical components of your role might you be rusty in? Know what your stress points are and where could you potentially come unstuck. List these, along with steps you’ll take to mitigate them and be prepared to learn again. What resources do you have at your disposal that you can tap into? Who are your mentors, who is your support crew? What training or coaching can you access? For an awesome leadership course for women, I can recommend one run by my very talented friend Jayne Chater, The Female Leader.
  1. Rework your network. This is both internally in the organisation, as well as externally. Organisations such as Professionelle are great for professional women. Are there industry body networking events you can pop along to? If not, don’t be afraid to set up a monthly peer coaching catch up with peers or friends as support and connection.
  1. Get your child care sorted well before the first day back at work. I was foolish and didn’t do any trial runs. If you can, start the child care at least a week before (ideally more) and do a dry run to work out how long you’ll need to battle traffic, have a shower, get them and you to where you need to be with plenty of time! These are practical tips that can help those first days back to work be far less stressful than they have to be.
  1. Communicate, communicate and communicate some more with your boss in the weeks prior to day one and in the months following it. Don’t be afraid to ask for support. After all, it’s in their best interests to get you up and running as soon as they can.
  1. Most importantly, be kind to yourself and have realistic expectations. It is a big transition. Don’t expect world domination on Day One. Survival might be a more realistic goal!

If you know someone who’s returning from parental leave, feel free to share this blog post with them. What tips do you have to smooth that transition back to work? I’d love to hear about your experiences and any tips for other soon to return to work parents. Leave your comments below.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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