Anna's Return to Work
By: Jennekin Dicks
Anna faced her first day back in the office with mixed feelings. She had worked hard in the first part of her career, advancing to the position of project leader. Now, nearing her mid-thirties and after a fifteen month maternity leave absence, it was time get back into it all.
Dropping little Maddie off at the day care centre this morning had gone well, but had left her with heavy feelings of guilt and anxiety. Thankfully, on her way to work, the rawness of the emotion was being replaced with excitement about being back in the world of adults and reconnecting with her career.
“Relax, it’s going to be fine,” she tells herself.
As soon as she stepped into the office though, reality hit with a dull thud in the centre of the worry she had been trying to ignore these past months. The office was the same familiar space, with the same familiar people, but all that used to be familiar and known, was now familiar yet unknown. Like walking into your old high school years after you had left.
The environment might be the same, but she was different. Different life, different habits, different needs.
Anna stopped at the office kitchen to put her lunch in the fridge, using the moment to settle herself before going upstairs to her desk. She paused and took stock of what she was facing. In the past, her typical job pressures used to have obvious answers – apply yourself, use whatever you have in the tank, put in the extra time, then shake it off with a good Friday night out, sleep in and enjoy a late brunch with Will. Step up, enjoy the rewards.
All of that felt like a past life now. It was a past life. What is the answer now? Use whatever you have in the tank? Her tank had been completely empty so often these past fifteen months… And extra time? What extra time??
C’mon Anna. You can do this. Compared to the non-stop pressure of taking care of a baby when you’re already bone-tired, how hard can this be?
But she knew it wasn’t the same. With her baby, outcomes were what she made them. Good or bad. There were no other people for Maddie to rely on – Anna and Will would do what needed to be done and as far as Maddie was concerned, her parents rocked as the centre of her little universe.
But now, back in the office… there were other people who could get things done if she failed, others who would shine when she couldn’t. People who had more time, who weren’t as tired, who hadn’t paused their careers. People who kept on learning and impressing, making connections and stepping up. How could she compete? And did she want to compete? These were her friends – she would always be happy for them when they had wins. And besides, her world had expanded and rebalanced with new priorities – would career achievements even be that important?
Anna rolled her eyes at herself. As if she could deny how much her work still meant to her and what she saw in her own future.
Right Anna, deep breath in. It’s not the first time you’ve had to face a challenge. You’ll figure this out. Long, slow breath out. Let’s do this.
2. BACK AT THE DESK
“Hey Anna! Welcome back!” Joe gave her a big hug. “Wow, you look great!”
He leaned in and said in a theatrical stage whisper, “Not bad for an ex jersey cow, eh?”
Joe had no filters amongst peers and Anna had always loved him for it. He could make anyone immediately feel like they were family. While she was heavily pregnant and they were all stressed out about a particularly tough project deadline, he had started musing about her as a ‘milking cow’, a joke she and everyone around them had had a fair bit of harmless fun with, as un-politically correct as it probably was.
She had appreciated the jokes at the time, because it made her feel like ‘same Anna’ while in reality, she had rapidly been turning into a waddling whale, one who sipped sparkling water during Friday afternoon drinks and went home with swollen ankles, while the rest of them were cracking open beers and heading out to the pub.
Today though, the cow joke left her with a slight feeling of resistance. Outwardly she laughed at Joe and told him to mind his farm manners, but on the inside a frisson of unease had started growing again. Do they know what a big deal it all is? Do they understand how much having a baby changes everything? Will they expect me to be the same Anna when I know I can’t be? I have so looked forward to being part of this group again, but...” She felt ungrounded. Uncertain. Out of place.
With all of this secretly running through her head, Joe’s next words left her momentarily speechless, “Anna, we need to talk about how you’re going to fit in with all of us now.”
“What?” Anna finally spluttered, staring open mouthed at Joe.
“No need for the stunned mullet look, Anna. You had gone off and successfully produced an entire human being, right down to the minute detail of whatever detail is involved in a spleen. No doubt, you’ve developed a whole new range of super powers in the process, so now we need to figure out how we can best exploit that to our full advantage.”
“Oh for crying out loud, Joe! What a way to deliver a good message.” Gwen, one of the company directors, had walked in and she was shaking her head at Joe in mock disgust.
“Hi Anna. So good to have you back.” She gave Anna a little squeeze on the shoulder. Gwen had always been a bit awkward around staff, but she was also sharp, insightful and in Anna’s opinion, a stellar boss.
“Why don’t you settle in and check that all your logins, email and server access is working. Our new IT consultant sorted it out last week and his card is there next to your keyboard - he’s expecting your call this morning to run you through all the details.”
“Oh…um…thanks Gwen. That’s very organised.”
“Well, we had a little chat at our Operations Meeting about you and thought that we didn’t want you to have to deal with access and email issues on your first day back. Once you’re all logged in, have a play around with our new cost reporting platform – you should have full access to all the project numbers. Remember those concerns you raised early last year about how we manage our cost data? Well, it sparked quite the revolution.”
Anna was surprised. “You acted on it?”
“Of course! You made a great point and it made us realise we had longstanding habits which may have served us in the past, but were seriously overdue for questioning. But let’s talk about all of that later.”
Gwen started leaving, then turned back abruptly, “Oh and what Joe was trying to tell you earlier in a rather obscure way, was that we all want to understand what you need and also how you can best help all of us again. You were sorely missed these past 15 months for what you used to do Anna, but you’re in a different phase of your career now and we all need to figure one another out quickly so you’re happy and we’re happy. See you at the Resourcing & Programming meeting – we start at 10am sharp.”
Anna stared at Gwen as she walked away, then slowly turned to Joe. “Who are you and what did you do with my old work people?”
“I’m a very busy man Anna! Can’t talk now!” And with that he hunched over his keyboard and started typing furiously.
Anna laughed. “Switch on your PC, you idiot.”
“No time Anna, no time.” Joe smirked at her.
3. THE RESOURCE MEETING
Anna was seated in the meeting room along with everyone else at 10am. She expected to be an observer for most of the meeting while they discussed current project progress and resourcing, so it came as a surprise when Gwen opened the meeting with an immediate reference to her time.
“Anna, I have a smallish project for you to start on next week, which isn’t hugely urgent. We’ll talk about it after the meeting. Sound good?”
“Sure,” said Anna, politely smiling at Gwen. She was half relieved that it will be a slow start back, but at the same time also feeling a bit disappointed that she seemed to have fallen back into ‘simple’ work. She had worked so hard to be trusted with larger, more complex projects. Was this a sign of things to come? She had a number of friends in other companies who often mentioned their frustration at being automatically sidelined when they had their babies and needed to cut back on their hours.
Anna decided that she had best talk to Gwen about this later, but felt disheartened that she straight away had to have a moan, even if it was justified.
“But,” continued Gwen, “we do only see the small project as a way to figure out the detail of your routine and help you get used to the new software platform. We know that once you’re back in the swing of things, you’ll need something a lot more challenging. So, the other Directors and I will keep talking to you over the coming weeks, look at the upcoming projects in the pipeline and make a good choice together about both the project and who to put in your team.”
Anna was so relieved she couldn’t hide her excitement. “Thank you Gwen! I wasn’t expecting that. Sounds great!”
“Of course Anna. You had a baby, not a lobotomy.” Everyone chuckled and Gwen looked decidedly pleased with herself.
She continued, “Right, so last week I asked all of you to have a think about how we can best use Anna’s skills on your projects while she is settling in during these first weeks. Several of you had emailed me some great suggestions about the kind of help you need and I think we should go ahead with it. Anna, I reminded them that, amongst other things, you had an excellent network of suppliers, reps and consultants in the past, so perhaps we can look for reasons for you to reconnect with them while getting the information people need.”
Anna saw several heads nodding around the table, everyone smiling at her. “It’s really great to be back, everyone. And I’d love to help,” she said, feeling rather grateful to the whole group and wondering if she might choke up right there in front of them all.
“Well it’s lovely to have you back Anna, we’ve missed you,” said Gwen, pausing to allow the moment to settle. “Right”, she continued briskly, “everyone, please catch up with Anna separately today about where you need help. And Anna, I’ll leave it up to you to schedule that work over the next couple of weeks so you don’t overload yourself. And don’t let them abuse your time! Ok, onto everyone else’s projects…”
4. A NEW PATH
“So what do you think, Anna?”
Anna was seated in the small meeting room with Mike, one of the three company directors. It was the end of her second week back and he had in front of him the same induction form Sally, their Practice Manager, had used during Anna’s first few days back.
At first, Anna had been surprised that they were ‘inducting’ her, since she had been at the company for a number of years before going on maternity leave. Sally had explained though that it was a new ‘return to work’ induction process, which they hoped would help her settle in well.
Mike had been busy completing the last section with her, but then interrupted himself to talk about the whole concept of doing a ‘return to work’ induction. He had admitted that he had at first been very dismissive of it all.
“I thought, great, another piece of paper, more time wasted - particularly since it involved so many of us in the process. And if I have to be honest – I thought there was no need to fuss so much over someone coming back to work. I told them – Anna can fend for herself, because I’ve seen you do it so many times in the past, right?” Mike had smiled, shaking his head gently. “But you know Gwen! She always has a good reason for any change she wants to bring into the business. Plus she clearly had a fire burning in her soul for this one.”
Leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms, Mike had let out big sigh, “You know, she gave me quite the lecture when I initially dismissed the idea - about how I never had to deal with what she had to deal with 20 years ago when we were all starting our families. She said it was not a question about what you can and can’t do, Anna, it was about how we all find a way to readjust to a new reality for one of our people, so we’re still the best team possible overall.”
Now Mike was asking her what she thought about it all.
Anna considered what she had experienced over the past two weeks. Sally had used the form to prompt a series of discussion points and for each of them, Anna had seen a result in one way or another – a follow-up conversation, a suggestion or decision made, information being sent her way. And the questions were all on topics Anna had in fact been worried about:
What had changed in the business and the industry? Where could they offer more information/mentoring/training to help bring Anna up to speed?
Did Anna have any concerns about her hours and could she please let them know how the routine of Maddie’s drop-off, pick-up and the practical details of Anna’s commute there and back is working out?
What were the new practical barriers Anna thought might impact on her work and career progression?
Anna had appreciated how the discussions around these and other questions were not about simply completing a form - it was not about someone being seen to be ‘doing the right thing’. No, it was about having real conversations about real issues. There was an unmistakable interest in wanting to understand potential issues for the sake of the person, the team, their clients and the business, which Anna thought made a whole lot of sense as it would mean that everyone wins.
In particular, the conversation about ‘practical barriers’ gave her an unexpected opportunity to worry out loud about how she couldn’t rely on evening networking events as often as she used to. In the past, she would use as many opportunities she could find to build her own network and to contribute to bringing in new business. She loved it – so much so, that she had showed up at a few events during her maternity leave with little baby Maddie strapped on. It was a bit distracting when Maddie fussed and the conversations were usually about her baby, but it was still nice to be part of it all.
Now though…Maddie was turning into a squirming toddler and of course could stay at home with Will, but Anna felt that her previous volume of evening networking events was just not what she wanted in her life at this point. She had relied on it so heavily, so what was the alternative now? Cold calling?
What had impressed her most though, was that as soon as she voiced these concerns, Sally had nodded and pointed to the pre-start section of the form, where Anna could see notes from a meeting between the Directors the week before she started back at work. Under a sub-section called ‘skills to support’, one of the items they had noted was ‘networking/business development’.
“This is one of the points Gwen raised with the other project leaders, Anna,” Sally had explained. “She was looking for different ways to get you connecting with external people as part of your daily tasks. But not only that, Alex is starting to talk about retiring in a few years’ time. You know how important his connections have been to the business, right? Well, the thinking is that you and him could talk and see how he could start introducing you to his extensive network over daytime coffees. Would you be interested?”
Interested?? Anna had been blown away by it all. Where to start explaining to Mike what all this had meant to her… She decided to get straight to the heart of it all.
“Mike, I was excited to get back to work, but I realised it was not going to be as simple as picking up where I had left off. I knew I was going to give it my best, but I was expecting to have to find new ways myself to step up, while having less time to spend in the office and with other priorities weighing on my mind during the day. I thought I’d have to ask for what I needed and even having to argue for some change. It’s not easy to ask you know – I’m not one to hold back, but you never know how things will turn out when you ask for things for yourself… where it might grate on someone or not fit in with a direction the Directors had already decided on.”
Mike nodded thoughtfully.
“But what you all have done for me…” Anna swallowed hard, trying not to give in to the swell of emotion she was experiencing, “Nothing feels like it’s just for me. It all feels like we’re working towards something that is better for everyone – the whole company. Which means I don’t have to deal with any guilt that I’m making my problem your problem or that I’m asking for special treatment…everyone is invested in this together.”
Anna leaned forward and looked at Mike intently. “I don’t have to fight for anything in here, Mike. I can just focus on doing really good work. That’s a huge weight off my shoulders. Really huge. And Mike, I…”
Mike held up a hand. “Anna, I get it. And I wish I had understood this years ago.” He looked down and shook his head, breathing out slowly. All of this was weighing heavily on him too. He looked up, smiling broadly.
“But here we are now, so what do you say we finish up with these topics and see what other ways we can find to change our little world.”
“Sure Mike.” Anna smiled. “Ready when you are.”