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Women@Work: Emma Walsh

08 May 2013

Emma Walsh explains her business, mums@work, as the first in Australia to provide a dedicated ‘return to work’ service to assist parents re-enter the workplace, manage their careers and, at the same time, meet family needs and demands. It also works with employers to develop the strategies, policies and procedures needed to support the successful introduction of flexible work practices into their workplaces. The two offerings are what make mums@work unique.

Before beginning her own business Emma worked as an HR professional in the financial services industry, but with entrepreneur stamped on her genes – her mother is one of six children, all of whom have their own businesses, her father has also always had his own businesses – running something of her own seemed inevitable.

She has just finished a hectic few weeks working full time delivering training around Australia to other busy mums and dads trying to re-evaluate their career after kids.

“I was going out with some girl friends the other night, and had just passed the children to my husband when it occurred to me that Kevin and I were more like ships passing each other in the night at the moment!” explains Emma, one sunny autumn day just before the start of the school holidays, admitting she still hadn’t booked her twin boys and little girl into holiday care yet.

It’s something busy parents can relate to all too well, and Emma believes it is important to check in with yourself and each other when life gets too frantic, to work out if there’s light at the end of the tunnel or if a “really bad habit’s developed that needs to be broken”, because “it can easily get to the point where you wake-up one day and think, ‘Who is that person I married?’ ”

And that is why Emma believes in the importance of raising self awareness – finding out what works for you and what doesn’t at home and at work, and what strategies you can put in place to cope when it all goes ‘pear shaped’. It’s why mums@work exists and why she knows what the business does is worthwhile.

From humble beginnings in 2006, mums@work has grown to provide return to work coaching services and working parent programs to organisations such as KPMG, Johnson and Johnson, Sanofi, Westpac, QBE, Macquarie Bank and more.

Emma has three staff as well as all manner of expert consultants into which she can tap delivering her innovative programs and ideas. They all work from home and flexibly.

“Career After Kids” is a ‘group-think’ coaching seminar, assisting parents who are returning to work to improve work, career and family balance. The seminar is delivered nationally and provides parents with a place to come together and think through work family issues, developing tools, guides and flexible work practice measures that suit their particular needs.

The business itself employs a number of work modes: face-to-face and telephone coaching, as well as virtual online tools, guides, workshops and a unique parents@work portal, which allows parents to communicate and connect with one another inside the portal.

The portal is a customised, interactive solution designed to suit the needs and policies of an organisation. It has been developed around the years of experience Emma’s business has had in supporting working parents.

Both the portal and the CAK seminars guide working parents through the parenting journey and their return to work in line with an organisation’s particular procedures and policies. They achieve this by preparing parents for parental leave, helping them stay in touch whilst on leave, as well as guiding their return to work and management of career as a working parent.

“My motivation in doing all this has never been financial,” says Emma, who admits if that had been the case she would have shut up shop back when the costs of childcare far outweighed the amount the business made.

“I want parents’ voices heard on this topic around managing career and family, and to get people to understand that society benefits as a whole if we address their needs,” says Emma, who finds the media portrayal of ‘working’ and ‘at-home’ mothers unhelpful and divisive.

Every person, she believes, deserves the opportunity to have a fulfilling rewarding working life – whatever that may mean for them – without having to sacrifice their children and family in the process.

“In the seven years I’ve been doing this work I’ve discovered economic imperatives for returning to work are a given and are very rarely the driving motivator. The primary reason for going back to work revolves around: ‘I enjoy my job. I’ve worked hard to get where I’ve got. It’s time out of the house for me. It’s my time where I am me, the individual, the professional, the person.

“I am not dealing with people,” continues Emma, “who are deciding whether they want to be back at work or not. I am dealing with people who want to be at work for really positive reasons but they don’t want to do it if it is at the sacrifice of their family.”

So what’s the hidden conversation in all this?
It’s men.

Many more men want to be involved in raising their children than there were 30, even 20, years ago, and the societal expectation that men will be involved is growing.

Media portrayals of men working and burping babies – balancing family and work flexibly – are only ever couched in terms of rapturous reward and portrayed in positive images. Not a portrayal afforded to very many women – working or at-home mothers who are often critiqued and judged for their choices.

Fathers, Emma thinks, may want to enter the debate but feel if they’re too vocal they’ll appear nothing more than feminist apologists and under the thumb, or, even worse, as someone who doesn’t take their career seriously. Others don’t even see the need to enter the discussion, preferring just to get on with it. Neither attitude helps, when the need is for strong, diverse, visible role models.

Another difference, Emma’s noted, between men and women engineering flexibility at work is in permission seeking: “Men tend to say what they’re going to do and then do it. My advice to anyone seeking flexibly is to go to the negotiating table with a plan you can confidently back because you’ve done the research and worked out how it will work in reality. Don’t couch it in terms of asking permission, because that opens the door to negativity. If you state at work and at home what you ‘can do’ and the hours in which you can do it, and drop the can’ts, you’ll be amazed at the shift in attitude and the amount that can be accomplished.”

Male or female, two ingredients are needed to juggle career and family successfully: you have to enjoy your work – “no one wants to go to a job they loathe only to pay someone to look after their kids” – and you have to have access to flexibility, which Emma explains is “created not advertised”.

“I think there are men making the decision not to put themselves forward for the next promotion the way they may have had to or wanted to in the past, because they cannot see how they can combine the life and family concerns that are now important in the equation with the demands of stressful jobs that have remained traditional and inflexible,” says Emma, who also sees GenY holding similar thoughts.

“Working flexibly encourages innovation and creativity. Society as a whole wins once we’re convinced flexible, forward thinking is of more value than sticking to the old routines and habits,” she concludes.

Just what sort of a workforce will we have if we continue to disregard the needs of parents and carers now and in the future?