As more companies offer longer parental leaves and other leaves of absence, managers and their teams are learning how to handle them successfully. Extended leaves are an amazing benefit and highly valuable to the individual and their company. Preparing for leave comes with its own set of risks and challenges, but many people neglect to prepare for the challenges that arise on returning from leave.
You will learn how to deal with the concerns you may experience as you re-integrate into your workplace, including:
• Am I still good at my job?
• If my team succeeded while I was away, do they still need me?
• Everything is the same!
• Everything is different!
• I gave away my Lego; now what?
Leaders will learn how to help their reports return to work effectively and positively. Teammates will learn how to support and empathize with their teammate returning to work. Those who’ve taken such a leave will nod along, knowing that they are not alone. This talk will provide actionable insights into what it’s like to return to work after an extended leave, the challenges one may face, and how to overcome them.
Lead Developer Austin 2019 - Returning From a Long Parental Leave
Returning From a Long
What to expect when everything goes right
I’m Matt Newkirk and I’m here to talk to you a bit about returning to work after a long
parental leave. It’s easy to imagine the pain, stress, and headaches when things go
wrong. I was lucky to have things go right but still felt a lot of anxiety. I’ll walk you
through my story and some tips for helping yourself and others return from leave.
Senior EM at Etsy
~ 20 Reports (6 direct)
~ 2 Children
As a little bit of background, I’m a senior engineering manager at Etsy where I
oversee our Localization & Translation team in San Francisco. I’m also a father of two
young kiddos: my son is three and a half and my daughter just turned one.
Going Back to Work Was Right For Me
So, here’s my story.
I was privileged to take six months leave, and I decided to take the whole term. It was
hard to change my daily routine, getting back to work after so much time with my
daughter, but...I knew it might be nice. Before my leave ended, I considered what I
knew I’d find back at work.
A Few Things to Rely On
✓ New Lighter Load
✓ New Boss
✓ New People
✓ Same Old Support Network
A re-org happened while I was out, resulting in
Only two direct reports to manage, and a new boss.
There was also a lot of growth while I was out, so about half of the folks on my
extended team were new to me.
Some things weren’t changing, though: I have a great Parents Employee Resource
Group at work, a few leadership slacks, and a bunch of people with whom I can share
the highlights and lowlights of my day.
Hopefully, You Have a Long Runway
I started thinking of what I might have, as well:
●Time to adjust. This was effectively a new job, not line managing any teams, so my
schedule would be pretty open.
●As a result, I thought I might have less stress to go with my new habit of less sleep.
After working through all of that, I let myself think about what I might be missing.
Image: Matt Newkirk, Point Reyes Thule Elk Preserve, February 2019
How Do You
Practice. Most of my job is talking and organizing, but the systems are a bit simpler
while on parental leave. I considered putting my daughter on a performance
improvement plan for her sleep habits but I couldn’t get it past HR
Do You Know Who...Anybody Is?
●I also thought I’d be missing Context. It’d take a while to figure everything out.
●I confess that 7 months later, I still don’t remember the new names of some of my
peers’ teams, and my first few weeks were full of awkward moments like this, but in
Can You Succeed After a Six Month Break?
I knew I’d have a lighter, but different load when I got back, and would likely feel a bit
uneasy for a while. In other words, I’d feel like a new hire.
I don’t want to gloss over the fact that this felt weird and uncomfortable.
I felt anxious for the weeks leading up to my return.
I had changed, at least a little bit in the six months since I left.
My job was to be a leader, but I’d followed the cues of my kids and our doctors for the
last half year.
I get the most joy in my role from setting people up to succeed, and while I helped my
kid successfully reach half a year, it was hard to attribute that to goal setting and
I wasn’t sure if I could still be successful as a manager.
Spoiler alert: the answer is yes.
Refer Back to it.
Weeks 1-4:Talk to People,
Weeks 5+: Expect New Stuff,
Achieve Business as Usual
I decided to develop a personal onboarding plan for myself.
I thought I’d spend the first few weeks getting to know the people again, checking in
with the folks that I knew and introducing myself to the folks I didn’t.
I had a feeling my new boss would have some new responsibility for me to take on
and I slotted that into my second month. I figured I’d be back to business as usual by
I shared this plan with my boss to make sure that we were aligned, and then started
putting it to work, knowing I’d need to come back to it often.
✓ Meet With the Boss
✓ Talk to Friends and Peers EVERY DAY
✓ Get 1-1s Back On Schedule
✓ Meet With Business Partners
How to Get Back to Business As Usual
So, these are the things I did to get back to business:
●Resumed regular 1-1s with my reports. CLICK
●Had regular meetings with my business partners so that I could figure out how best to
help them. CLICK
●Had regular check-ins with my new boss to make sure that I wasn’t wasting my time
on the wrong priorities. CLICK
●Last but not least, I had a group of friends and peers to talk to, on a day to day basis.
Talking with them calmed my nerves when I felt uneasy. CLICK
Fit Back In
Those early 1-1s had a lot in common with each other:
●Everyone had been mostly successful while I was away. There was a lot to catch up
●My manager reports had to stretch a lot in those six months, growing in their careers
faster than if I hadn’t needed to lean on them, but
●Nothing fell to pieces, and I couldn’t find any evidence of a Matt-shaped hole on my
🤔🤯🤨😬😳“We Missed You”
They Say I Think
I also heard a lot of “Welcome back, we missed you!” I’d shared that sentiment with
other folks who’d gone out and returned, but something was different. When I heard it
from other people, I didn’t believe them.
Just to be clear, this disbelief is purely an emotional response. Intellectually, I trust all
of these people and failing to listen to them is a mistake. And yet…
When You Give Away Your Lego...
Look how successful everyone had been without me! I gave away my legos
...and Your Team Builds This!
…and they built something amazing! I spent a lot of time wondering if I still had a
place on the team.
On the bright side, the extra free time was fantastic for my early days. There were no
fires to put out! Nothing had higher urgency than usual. No late nights. Every day for
the first two weeks, I had to remind myself: Matt, you made a plan. Your plan was to
listen. Sit down with people and just listen.
It’s the kind of thing I had to repeat because I put pressure on myself to bring value,
moreso because I’m not actually a new hire. I’m someone who’s been on the payroll
for the last six months with only one exciting delivery story to share.
All the Stuff You Delegated
They Need You to Take Your Stuff Back
After a few weeks, it became a bit clearer where my team had to stretch in my
absence. They’d been handling all of their own projects along with the whole program.
They’d taken all the meetings. Their calendars were fully booked. And they were
ready to give me some of my legos back.
This is the part where I really celebrated: I could finally believe them! They really did
miss me! Just by taking back some responsibility, I delivered value to my team!
✓ Remind Them of Their Success
✓ Set Short-Term Goals
✓ Re-Onboard Them!
How to Support Returning Reports
Here are a few things I’d recommend for a manager whose report is coming back
from a long leave:
●A lot has changed. Help them easily figure out how to learn what changed. CLICK
●They might be feeling anxious about their performance. This is as important as any
time to remind them what they’re doing well and to help them get back on track if they
take a misstep. CLICK
●Set short term goals with them. It can be overwhelming to try to catch up, re-establish
connections, and also do all of the day to day stuff, from day one, so let them know
what you actually expect.
✓ Don’t Make Assumptions
✓ Don’t Wait to Say Hi!
✓ Don’t Make Assumptions
How to Support Returning Peers
For peers of someone returning from a long parental leave:
●Hopefully there were some restful and restorative moments, but that’s not guaranteed.
Parental leave isn’t a vacation, it’s a lengthy sabbatical to take a different full time job,
possibly with a slew of medical concerns thrown in. “How was it?” Is a great question
to ask. “You must be exhausted!” and “You must have had a great time!” aren’t
necessarily true. CLICK
●They probably missed you, too, so don’t feel like you need to wait some arbitrary
period of time to say hello and catch up. The early weeks are literally all about
All You Need
on Your Return
an oversimplified list
● A Clear Scope of Work,
● A Clear Onboarding Plan,
● Support From Your Boss,
Reports, Peers, and Friends
So, to sum up, these are the things that lead to some ideal return conditions that you
can build for yourself and your teammates:
●Knowing what you’re expected to do,
●Knowing when you’ll be expected to do each thing, and
●Knowing that you’re not doing it all by yourself.
Hopefully these tips can help you support yourself and to be supported, but you might
feel doubts from time to time.
You might feel alone. You might feel incompetent. You might feel like this, before you
go back, or after. But...it’ll be OK.
You are not alone You are competent
You will feel
You bring value
You’re not alone - your manager, your peers, and even strangers on the internet like
me are with you.
You’re competent - your skills didn’t disappear when you went out on leave.
You’ll get a handle on everything after a little re-onboarding.
You add value to your team. You can believe that they’re happy to have you back
because of what you bring to the table.
Find me on @mnewkirk
Thank you, it’s been a delight to share my story with you. See you out there and I
wish you all painless returns from parental leave.