I love hiring, managing, and being on teams with working mothers. I’ve managed teams for most of my career, and I can truly say that some of the very best employees I’ve ever had were working mothers.
Note that I say this without kids of my own (or any planned). Sure, I love my nieces and nephews to pieces (and have changed more than my share of dirty diapers!), but I’m personally not cut out to be a mother. To work with them, though? Absolutely.
“Wait a second,” you may be saying, “what about the demands on their time? On distractions? On lack of sleep? On their crazy rigid schedules?”
Oh, please. Like people without kids have no demands on their time? Distractions? Lack of sleep? Crazy schedules? I call these objections crap. Instead of thinking about why working mothers might be “problematic” in the workplace, let’s talk about what they bring to the table that make them truly fantastic employees instead.
No one – and I really mean no one – can prioritize like a working mom. No one else can so quickly grasp that their to-do list is longer than imaginable and figure out what to attack first.
Honestly, I’m not 100% sure what causes this (not being a mother myself), but my theory is that they have to triage so much at home that it comes naturally to them at work. All the moms I’ve worked with are so good at this that I’ve been known to ask them for help with my own prioritization!
When systems crash or deals go south, having someone around who truly understands perspective can calm the entire team down. The perspective they bring to the table is more of a whole-life perspective. Working mothers understand that, in the grand scheme of life, a business crisis isn’t as horrible as a true crisis, like having a kid land in the hospital.
This perspective can really help calm people down. It’s one thing to say, “It’s not like anyone died,” and another to hear, “Wow, this sucks, but not as badly as when Johnny had appendicitis and had to get emergency surgery.”
It’s easy to pay lip service to having a flexible work environment and then accidentally (or purposefully) make it rigid for people. Throwing a mom on the team, though, will force true flexibility, which is beneficial for the entire team.
When other employees see working moms (or dads!) leave to pick up their kids, they’ll start thinking about leaving at a more reasonable time themselves. When other employees see working moms take an afternoon off to go to a school event, they’ll think about taking off the occasional afternoon to spend with their family. This leads to a healthier work environment, since balance leads to less burnout.
This follow-the-leader flexibility goes the other way as well. When employees on your team see the lengths to which a working mom will go to get childcare when she needs to put in a few extra hours, they’ll reconsider their own dedication.
Because of #3 and the crazy demands of parenthood, moms have to communicate about what they’re doing and when. I absolutely loved this as a manager. I loved having a handle on what people were doing without stalking them throughout the day and having to ask. It made my job much easier as a manager, and, like #3, it set an example that the rest of the team was more likely to follow.
As much as I love hiring and working with working mothers, however, there are a few things I learned that you need to have going on in order to make it work smoothly.
1. True Flexibility
To make flexible time work for working mothers, you need to truly be flexible. You need to let your entire team – not just the mothers – take the time they need or work untraditional schedules.
If you’re accustomed to managing face-time intensive environments, this might be difficult for you at first. Start concentrating on what people produce rather than whether you see them at your desks, and you’ll find that it gets easier.
The rest of your team could resent the flexibility you’re providing to parents. This is where your communication with them comes into play. The bottom line is that, other than maternity and paternity leave (which we need in order to continue our species), non-parents need have the exact same flexibility and benefits that parents do, and non-parents need to be aware of that.
Your conversation with your entire team needs to make flexibility and other benefits very clear. And you need to also make clear that, while parents may work less conventional hours or need to leave earlier some days, every member of your team has the exact same options that parents do.
3. Equal Treatment
This one is on you. It’s your responsibility to figure out how to be understanding when a kid is sick or to communicate that you need your working mother to work on a day she doesn’t usually work. It’s your responsibility to promote on merit rather than hours worked. It’s your responsibility to extend the same after-work invitations to parents and non-parents alike.
It’s never easy to give your staff equal treatment, but it can be even more challenging if someone is putting in less face time than someone else. If you’re not conscious of your actions, you can make things rough for the parents on your team.
Oh, and one more thing: Even though hiring working mothers is awesome, it’s still illegal to ask about kids in an interview. Got it?
Image courtesy of Steve Tolcher.