When colleagues become family and work becomes a home

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Originally published on LinkedIn, 16 August 2017.

Why RedBalloon & the Big Red Group are different.

I was inspired to write this post after chatting to a consultant to the Big Red Group. She has a three-week-old baby, her first, and is back at work kicking goals in the boardroom. I was in awe of her poise, polished presentation, positive attitude and straight out professionalism (points for alliteration?). “This is a woman who has it together,” I thought. Then, because I’m human I found myself immediately comparing my experience having my first child and returning to work, to what I was seeing in front of me. It was like chalk and cheese. She spoke about the incredible support she’d had from her friends and family in this time – her 'village'. I wondered how many women would relate to her experience, or on the very other end of the spectrum, mine. And it got me wondering, what makes a village?

Did you know that in some cultures it’s customary for the women of a family to surround a new mother with support and love (and cake) in the days, weeks and even months following the birth of a child? Mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, the tribal elder from down the road who makes a killer casserole. This is to allow the new mother to rest and recuperate from the sheer agony and lady-part destroying trauma - err, I mean, amazing experience - of childbirth. But what about those of us who live away from family and don't have that village around us? Is there a role in times of need for our employers and colleagues to play? We live in a time where there's no such thing as a 'clock-in, clock-out' workday for most of us. So isn't it time for workplaces to return the favour and support their people even after they've left their desk for the day?

It's something my employer has always excelled at, and I'm not overstating things when I say that RedBalloon saved my bacon when I suddenly found myself a single mum two years ago. And now as a member of the Big Red Group they've even gone so far as to hire a Life Coach whose remit is to support the team with work-related and personal issues, growth and development. It's an holistic approach to professional development and support, and shouldn't be groundbreaking really, since we all have but one life: there's no line that neatly separates 'work life' from 'home life'.

This isn’t a 'mummy blog', so I’m not going to wax lyrical about babies and being a mum and how amazing and fulfilling it is, etc etc, blah blah blah. But let's go back a step so I can tell you about how my employer has supported me when I've had limited help at home as a so-called 'single mum'.

I found myself faced with the reality of sending my baby to long daycare, returning to work, surviving on a single income (paying Sydney rent!), and basically managing the exhausting dual role of mother and worker, solo. Amidst - quite frankly - excruciating personal trauma.

The expectations on new mothers are endless at the best of times - especially those expectations we place on ourselves. Look fresh, be happy and bounce back into those pre-baby size 10 jeans within a month. Take baby to the library for story time to stimulate their intellect as early as possible and never ever turn the TV on in front of baby at risk of serious neurological disorders. Eat only gluten free, paleo, salt and sugar free organic kombuca and homemade protein balls. Have sex with your husband, and enjoy it. You should bond with your baby immediately and beat yourself up incessantly if you don't. You must remember to breathe, bathe, blow-dry hair and have flawlessly contoured cheek bones. You absolutely must breast feed exclusively - do not under any circumstances mix feed, formula feed or express milk to allow you a sneaky three hours sleep because you may damage your child in unknown yet awful ways and every woman can breast feed, you’re just not trying hard enough. Look sexy at all times - but not too sexy; you’re a mum for goodness sake! Return to work quickly to ensure you 'keep your foot in the door’ and because it’s important to ‘contribute' and ‘lean in’ and ‘find your purpose’. But also, don’t return to work because do you even love your baby if you’re willing to desert them in a germ-infested daycare centre, run by 21-year-old strangers who have never had a lactation consultant try to milk them, while crying on the couch watching Ellen and deep throating Tim Tams (anecdote based on actual events).

It's fair to say I was under a bit of pressure with the load of it all, and the last thing I needed was to have to worry about work.

So imagine my surprise when the first people on my doorstep after the news broke about my "situation" were three of my colleagues. I'd called to let them know I needed a little more time before returning to work. They drove an hour in the middle of the work day and arrived bearing chocolate, wine and hugs. As well as the news that my return to work date had been extended "indefinitely". I was to return to work when I saw fit, oh and by the way, "If you need an advance on your salary we can manage that too". The second visitor was another colleague who lived locally - he knew I was without a computer at home so he bought me a laptop to fill out seemingly endless reams of Centrelink paperwork. And also more hugs. There were messages and calls from our founder and care packages from the marketing team. And while my family were incredible, they were a long way away. My workplace stepped up to fill the role of 'village', in every sense of the word.

As a working mum, I don't feel grateful to have my job; I've worked bloody hard to get here and I've earned every promotion and accolade along the way. What I feel grateful for is that my employer cared about my wellbeing, the wellbeing of my child, and supported me to find a solution that meant everyone could thrive.

I've since returned to work with a renewed focus and enthusiasm - largely stemming from the appreciation I feel to my employer for supporting me through a really tough time. I work four days a week (one from home) and this allows me to manage life and all the complexities it brings. "Geez, you're on a good wicket!" I hear some people say. So let's be clear about one thing - as a working mum, I don't feel grateful to have my job; I've worked bloody hard to get here and I've earned every promotion and accolade along the way. What I feel grateful for is that my employer cared about my wellbeing, the wellbeing of my child, and supported me to find a solution that meant everyone could thrive.

So when I read mixed reviews about RedBalloon on employment websites like Glassdoor - where anyone can write anything about any business, anonymously, it really grinds my gears. Because I've experienced the reality of life behind the big red door - for six years in fact. Yes, I've seen a lot of change, and yes I know everyone is looking for something different. But what I have experienced is a business that consistently cares about people; delivers a motivating culture focused on development, achievement, maximising strengths and having great fun. A place that pays me what I am worth and appreciates when I go above and beyond. And importantly, a workplace that not only talks about flexibility, but lives it.

The Big Red Group enjoying the Great Barrier Reef on our recent all-company trip to Port Douglas. The company the plays together stays together.