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Coming back to work last summer, after an unusually long and remote holiday, I was nervous about what had happened in my absence. But how much worse would I have felt, if I’d been coming back after a year’s maternity leave, or after several years spent raising a young family?
You often read about businesses struggling to evolve to the changing needs of women after, for instance, a spell on maternity leave. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) revealed recently that three-quarters of working mothers in the UK had experienced workplace discrimination as a result of having children.
The issues created by maternity can be even more acute in a small business. Roles within small firms are often more diverse, with one person having many responsibilities, special knowledge and established customer and supplier relationships, which can make finding a suitable temporary replacement problematic.
As a rapidly growing small to medium sized business that’s roughly 75% female, we probably get more than the typical share of people re-entering the workforce (though not all do so after having had children, some have been looking after elderly parents, others have come out of retirement).
Rather than splitting out those on maternity leave etc., we group them, not by their age or the reasons why they’ve been away from work, but by how long it’s been since they worked.
For people coming back after a relatively short break (a year, say), the main issue is logistical. How do they deftly slot themselves back into the job they once had, given that someone else may have been doing it – and doing it differently – and the business as a whole may have changed in their absence? How, too, do they cope with the challenge of having on-going commitments outside of work?
In our experience, solving this comes down to flexibility, in terms of job design, working hours, holidays, etc. But for people who’ve been away from work for much longer, the crucial issue is usually confidence.
With older children, the sharp edge of childcare has been somewhat blunted: what these people need is a supportive working environment in which they can start gradually, but pick up speed quickly.
In both cases, the owners of a small business need to have a conversation with every returnee in order to understand what the latter’s needs are, and how they’d like to configure their jobs within the constraints of the business they work for.
But lots of business owners don’t offer, and returnees ask for, this conversation – largely because rewriting the clauses of a standard contract can be a tiresome process, and because most returnees are reluctant to do something that makes them stick further out from the norm.
The only way to get round that is to move away from having a standard contract. Everyone, whether they’re starting a new job or returning to work after a period of absence, should have an individual contract in which standard clauses are included when appropriate, not by default.
Every job should start with a blank piece of paper: the more this is the accepted way of doing things, the more willing people will be to be realistic about what they can take on, and the better able they’ll be to do a good job – a virtuous circle.
When you put it like that, you realise that the whole concept of flexibility – the keystone to so much of what businesses do to accommodate (and there’s another word that should be banned) people who want to work in a different way – isn’t helpful.
Saying we need to be more flexible just tells everyone that we’re not.
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