Slack Status: Taking Care of Baby! The Importance of Flexibility to Working Motherhood

As I sit down to write this blog post from my desk at home, I glance down at the baby monitor sitting on the desk next to my computer. I can see my 5-month-old son napping peacefully in his nursery, mere steps away from me. He’ll wake up in a little while, and I’ll step away from work for a bit to feed him, updating my Slack status to “Taking care of baby!”. While he nurses, I’ll use my phone to continue working by catching up on email, reading articles, and responding to coworkers on Slack. Then, my son will (hopefully) spend some time in his activity center, swing, or play gym while I continue working. If he isn’t in the mood for one of his various contraptions, I’ll step away from work again and spend some time playing with him, and return during his next nap. This has become our new rhythm in the 7 weeks since my maternity leave ended.

To be honest, I was nervous when I came back to work that working at home with a baby would seriously hamper my productivity. I worried that I would struggle to find enough hours in the day to effectively care for my son and perform my job well. Child care is not only prohibitively expensive, but it is increasingly difficult to find any daycare openings in my rural area. I am fortunate that my husband is usually able to stay home to help with care 2-3 days a week, but this still leaves several days of full time work and childcare. Plus, even when he is home, I still have to nurse or pump every few hours.

And yet, although it hasn’t always been perfectly smooth sailing, my concerns about maintaining productivity turned out to be overblown. In fact, in the last 7 weeks I’ve come to realize that I absolutely can be just as productive as I was prior to motherhood while working from home and caring for my baby, if not more so. The key to my sustained productivity? Flexibility.

Flexibility in practice

What does flexibility actually mean in practice? Werklabs recently fielded a Flexibility Questionnaire to The Mom Project community in which we identified the key drivers of flexibility. Our findings show that organizational support and personal autonomy are the two strongest predictors of workplace flexibility.

Organizational support entails an overarching culture of support for flexibility needs at work. This includes a genuine care for employee well-being and an acknowledgement of employees’ priorities outside of work. An important component of this culture of organizational support for flexibility is that it starts at the top, with leadership that actively supports and encourages flexibility.

Personal autonomy means having the freedom to get the job done. It entails empowering employees to choose where, how, and when they work. It also means working the hours needed to get the job done, rather than being tied to a specific timetable or number of hours.

Flexibility firsthand

What does this look like in action? Below, I share my own experiences as well as those of my colleague, Hannah. Hannah also works from home with her daughter, who is now 16 months, and was 7 months when she started on our team.

My flexibility needs are not treated as a burden by my colleagues and managers. If I have a meeting while my son is awake, I know I can simply plop him in my lap. Meetings are just as productive and efficient as ever (that is, as long as he doesn’t babble too loudly), and my manager and colleagues – including our team leader – are always happy to see him.

Hannah: When I am unable to meet at a specific time due to child care reasons, they happily work around my flexibility needs. Their thoughtful responses allow me to speak with transparency.

My team is respectful of schedule needs and flexible with changes. If I need to reschedule a call to accommodate a shifting nap or feeding schedule, my colleagues are happy to do so if they can. I put pediatric appointments on my calendar ahead of time, and those blocks are respected and never treated as a problem. When projects or meetings that demand my undivided attention arise, or when something comes up that necessitates more rigid scheduling, my colleagues communicate those needs well in advance. This makes it easier to plan for child care. Overall, my colleagues exhibit a balance of professionalism and empathy, a tone that is set not only by our team’s leadership but also by our company leaders.

Hannah: There is an environment of respect when it comes to schedule-related needs and changes. My teammates trust that I do not take advantage of the flexibility accommodations and I trust that they communicate with clarity and honesty regarding what the expectations are for the meetings or projects.

I am trusted to get my work done on my own timetable. As long as I am completing projects, maintaining clear communication, and meeting deadlines – in other words, generally performing my role effectively – my manager is happy to let me work when and how I need to in order to simultaneously meet both professional and childcare needs. If that means signing back on later in the evening after my son is asleep to finish editing a deck or complete an analysis of survey results, that is fully supported.

Hannah: While having a 16 month-old allows for slightly better expectation of what’s expected with her schedule, there are still many things that can throw off our days. Along with the trust that has been established within my team and understanding of priorities for different projects, I’m able to structure my day accordingly and know what needs to get done during “traditional office hours” versus what can be done after my daughter goes down for the night.

The bottom line

Working with a child at home is a constant balancing act, and having organizational support for the flexibility needed to make that work is absolutely critical to achieving a successful balance. If I didn’t have the flexibility I currently have in my role, my stress levels would be significantly higher. As a result, my performance as a professional and as a parent would certainly suffer.

Of course, not every role can be as flexible as mine (and many can be even more so!), and each individual’s situation is different. But the data is clear: organizations that establish and continually uphold a culture of flexibility are more likely to see satisfied, productive employees. My son and I – and Hannah and her daughter – are living proof of this reality. Every day, I am not only empowered to fully support my team and company in the ways that work best for me, I am also motivated to give back as much as I can to the job that gives me so much.

Georgia Anderson-Nilsson

Georgia Anderson-Nilsson

Georgia is a Werklabs researcher specializing in policy issues and thought leadership related to working parenthood. A new mom herself, she’s passionate about using data-driven approaches to help power better workplaces.