In this final episode, Sarah tells us about what it’s like juggling career and family, and working for a company that talks to its employees about finding and living the right balance. Sarah shares how her company, PKF Cooper Parry, fully supports flexible working, not just for women, but men too.
Transitioning back into the workplace
Working for a firm that believes in flexible working for men and women and one that acknowledges and responds positively and sensitively to the needs of family life has helped enormously.
Sarah’s partner is a fireman and worked shifts at the time. They were worried about the cost of childcare and her firm let her flex her part-time hours to fit in with her partner’s shifts on a week-by-week basis. “I was really lucky. Every week I was working a different day and they were completely fine with that. That level of flexibility from my employer was such a relief and not having to pay for childcare and knowing my son was with my partner was a huge help. Coming back was traumatic and I don’t think it could not have been, but they couldn’t have made it any nicer for me. My boss never once asked where I was or made a comment about the hours I was working. I have never had one questioning comment about what I have been doing since I came back from having Joshua. It is such a relief. I feel valued. It’s never ‘Sarah does a good job, but…’ it’s just ‘Sarah does a good job’.”
I asked her how she managed part-time in that way and still delivered the kind of customer experience the company expects to provide. “I only worked part-time but I was always available. I would take phone calls from clients and was on email. I never restricted myself to the days I was working and although my son was very active he did go to bed at 5pm so I was lucky to have time then. And it was a personal choice [to work that way], because I was so grateful to my firm for all they had done for me and I wanted to give something back. There was never an expectation.”
“The nature of my job means sometimes things happen and a client needs something and there are times when there is a clash but there is always someone to help if needed and it was never an issue. I have been sick so many times because of nursery bugs and my boss took work on for me and did it and there has never been any comment about that.”
It is great to hear that the company’s approach is not gender specific. “It is the same for men here, one of the managers works part-time to spend time with his son. Another just had a little boy and has taken an extended paternity leave. They are definitely open to providing the same opportunities.”
Reclaiming her old self
Working has enabled Sarah to reclaim some of her old self. “The old Sarah is probably 80% back. [Coming back to work] It allowed me to be me. To focus on something else, to have a cup of tea, or have an adult conversation. Being a mum gives you a sense of priority that you don’t have before. So things that would have caused me high levels of stress or panicked me seem very easy now to categorise and say ‘thats fine, I can deal with that.’ When you have a child you realise what’s important. It’s an amazing privilege being a mum and I think it just helps you put into perspective at work what’s important and what’s not and having balance and prioritising. I think my stress levels are generally lower now that I have got Josh.”
Sarah feels that becoming a mum has also made her a better colleague and better for her clients. “It has given me more empathy generally. Being so career focussed you can just be the job. When you are a mum you widen your experience. It has softened me quite a lot being a mum. Sometimes I feel I am missing out but you have to be pragmatic about the life you choose to live.” Sarah’s partner no longer works shifts and she has recently become full-time again. “It’s got its own challenges, nursery pick-ups and drop-offs, but I never get questioned because they know they get what they need from me. I am lucky in that my son loves nursery — he is very social. I have enjoyed coming back [to work] and I never get questioned or discounted for being a mum. I never get treated any differently to any of the other managers who don’t have children. I get treated the same.
“I know I am incredibly lucky. I don’t want anyone thinking it is easy but if you can find an employer that values you and makes your life a little bit easier it does make life better.”
So what’s in it for the firm that Sarah works for?
“The CEO and leadership team want people to be happy. Ultimately this is a business and I don’t think that the CEO and the leadership team would do anything if there wasn’t a business rationale behind it. I don’t think there is any more they could have done to make me a loyal person. When I needed them they were there for me. I know it’s my job to give back. It means they are not losing people who are talented. It’s very flexible here. Core hours are 10-3.30. For working mums who want to be part of their child’s life that’s incredible. There are so many working mums in other organisations that have had to give up their work as they no longer feel like they are being valued in this very rigid box of what is expected of them.
“All of the women at my last firm didn’t have families or children and that can be even worse in some ways because women can be incredibly competitive with each other. To have a woman in that position of power that doesn’t understand what it means to be a working mum is so hard. Whereas here we have numerous female Partners who have children and that’s amazing because you have a role model and she gets it. She gets that it is useful to work from home because it would be useful to pop a load of washing on in between doing some tasks. It is just having that experience that if you don’t let women work part-time and get into these positions of leadership they are never going to empathise with a huge population of your working staff.”
I asked Sarah what she thought her clients’ experience was of this flexible working for all “I don’t think they would see it as such. Because we are careful working part-time there is no impact on the clients with the level of service they get. We send out advocacy questionnaires all the time and we get amazing feedback.”
Sarah’s advice to others
Finally, I asked Sarah what advice she would have liked to have had before having her son “Don’t compare you and your child to anyone else. Accept you are doing the hardest job you will ever do and just give yourself a break. Don’t look at that person on the telly or that mum that looks really polished walking down the road. Just be grateful for the things you are doing every day and give yourself a pat on the back just for getting through it.”
And as far as returning to work goes: “I was lucky to have the supportive employer I had. But also realising it’s not the end of the world. You think you are doing your child a dis-service and actually my little boy goes to nursery full-time now and he is the happiest, most social, most confident child of anyone in my family and that’s because he has had these experiences. That’s not to say if you’ve got a child who stays home with his mum that’s wrong but actually it’s not wrong either that he goes to nursery. I think it’s just realising there are pros and cons to every situation and not to give yourself a hard time for going back to work.”
Interview by Yasmin Holmes
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