Yesterday, I headed into the sunshine where I met a friend for lunch. She manages a team of engineers, all guys of course, but the reason we met was to get a better understanding of flexible working conditions from a leadership perspective. You see, as a manager and mother of two, my friend has had to work from home from time to time, on an ad hoc basis. However, when it comes to securing some flexibility for her family, getting a home office is not a solution that is welcomed in a traditional male dominated working environment.


The bottom line is that the guys just don’t get it. Why would they? They have the family backing singer at home, taking care of the domestic stuff, whilst they go out as the main breadwinner. Even if the mum works, the chances are that she has dampened down to be there for the family, either by working part-time or taking a job with less responsibilities. Perhaps she is not even working in her own career anymore, and has downgraded to be in a job, rather than pursuing her career. Increasingly working women are choosing to go freelance to accommodate family flexibility.

Ironically, the traditional family roles are still very prevalent in modern day Germany. Even right here in Berlin – one of the world’s start-up hubs – seems odd doesn’t it? And yet, you cannot blame it on childcare, as you elsewhere where many kindergartens close at lunchtime or mid-afternoon.

Now, female engineers for example are fairly feisty characters as a rule, so they are unlikely to be swayed by the ‘Hauswife Hue’ that rears its ugly head with hurtful comments like

“Doesn’t it bother you that you never see your children?”


“I could never give up my children so early, I’d feel so guilty .”

Well the bottom line is that actually working Mums normally try to squeeze in just one or two long days a week, so of course they get to see their kids. Furthermore, that will be a hellish and difficult day, probably starting really early, perhaps as early as 7am in the office and not getting home until 8pm or later. It’s not a ‘walk in the park’ at all.

Women like this are making a genuine commitment to their career and to their employer and yet, no home office, sorry. That’s the mother’s perspective.  And yet, if you had a subordinate at home, how could you guarantee their performance? In Germany we have a saying “Trust is fine, but control is better”. Whilst staff are in the office you can keep an eye on them and see what they are up to, how often they take breaks, how long they are out of the office for lunch, when they clock out etc., whereas in a home office that ‘visibility’ is gone.

As a manager you wouldn’t want to be calling all the time to check that they weren’t out at the supermarket or having coffee with a friend, which quite frankly is not what you are being paid for. So you see it is not easy and there are probably employees that really should not be trusted to work independently.

You would have to find new ways of measuring performance,

in which case how would that work in your department?

To the other extreme, your conscientious manager for instance might find themselves disappearing into the office at the weekend, ‘just to check emails, or for 5 minutes’, and before they know it, an hour or more has passed. That self-imposed abuse of flexibility, can lead to resentment too.

Let’s take an exceptional situation now: Imagine for example that a mum is working from home because her child is sick. Sure she might be able to get stuff done, but is it likely to be less effective than if she were in the office, isn’t it?  Now a committed, motivated parent would catch up on the work that they didn’t get done in the evening or the weekend, (despite probably being exhausted) but what about the employee that is disgruntled, bored, feels undervalued or unappreciated? That employee might seize the benefits of flexibility and chill out on the sofa with a job search instead.

If someone is getting itchy feet and thinking of moving on to another employer, you are far more likely to pick up on their body language or get wind of their intentions if you see them.  Home office flexibility, we decided, is probably still better as the exception rather than the rule. That makes it a fairly expensive option, I guess. More importantly perhaps are the considerations of

“How do you decide who can and can’t work from home?”  
“How do you communicate that without getting yourself into deep water?”

And yet smart phones have already made us available after hours, shouldn’t there be a bit more give and take? Surely if you respond to calls and email requests at the weekends, evenings and bank holidays, then you too would probably expect a little flexibility in return when it comes to working hours and workspace, wouldn’t you?

The three easiest ways to get talented women back after maternity leave are FIR:

1. Demonstrate FLEXIBILITY with a certain amount of home office working if they want it.

It is worth considering introducing it as a trial in the final stages of maternity leave when there tend to be more regular check up anyway. Agree in advance with a protocol, exactly what your expectations are in terms of communication etc.


2. Make sure she is INVOLVED in the team.

Out of sight should not be out of mind. As soon as her sense of belonging dwindles, then you are on the slippery slope, as her loyalty fades and she loses touch, it is only human to start weighing up the pros and cons of the job and employer and that is when there is a real risk of losing her at the end of the maternity leave.

So what do you do as a team that she would appreciate being invited along to?

If you make it clear from the word go that she is a valued member of the team, then she will be looking forward to coming back to the team and getting involved again. Training and networking with clients is a great way to involve your talented new Mum in the team without putting her under pressure.


In terms of communication, she probably won’t have the time or inclination to read lots of emails, but a couple of emails a month to fill her in on what is happening, will give her the opportunity to stay in the loop and this makes it easier to get up to speed when she comes back. If you can keep her interest then she is likely not only to want to come back but she will also hit the ground running.

3. RESPECT the fact that she has a young family and keep ‘out of office’ communication to a minimum.

Again, towards the end of the pregnancy women are exhausted in the afternoons and evenings, so inundating her with requests, confirmations etc after hours, can cause resentment and make her feel guilty. If you are honest with yourself you will probably acknowledge that after hours communication are triggered predominatly by a lack of organisation and time management than genuinely being  a matter of urgency.


So the moment you are told that a member of your team is going on maternity or paternity leave, then you need to start thinking about how your department can work together to make that new parent feel welcome and valued. Be open and honest with them from the word go and find out what they would like to be involved with, whether they would appreciate joining the rest of the team for team building, training, team dinners etc and how she wants to be communicated with and how often. Why guess if you can ask.

To let her know that she is an integral part of the team, remember that actions speak louder than words, but a little bit of praise goes a long way too.  Make sure she leaves for maternity leave with more than just a nice present but a desire to be present again very soon. “Baby, please won’t you come back?”