Workplace expectations while expecting
Working in a startup in a leadership position, I was very used to, as we colloquially put it, burning the midnight oil. I lead the supply-sided product and I’m also involved in building the 2021 company strategy.
On an average day, I spend about 10-12 hours at work. On January 2, I was suddenly staring at two lines on the pregnancy test stick. Unlike the company strategy and every single step of my career, this was not planned nor expected.
After sharing the news with my husband, my first phone call was to the people head of my company. My initial reaction was full of fear and doubt, doubt on whether I really could pull off both my work and being a mother to the best of my abilities. I strongly believed I couldn’t pull off both together, and this isn’t a comment about how women can have it all, but more specifically to what I believed I could do.
While the phone was ringing, my mind was taking stock of the situation with the below main thoughts:
a. My workload and responsibility at work were both fairly high.
b. I had volunteered to take a lot of extra work as I wanted the opportunity to learn and grow at an accelerated pace, and
c. My day was interspersed with high volume and higher passion led discussions, which would probably be the opposite of the calm and serenity I had heard expecting mothers need to spend their time in.
My HR head, a lady who has a great career and two amazing children, asked me to first just pause and breathe. We didn't need to decide at that moment. Like everything else in life, this will also be figured and figured out in the best way possible. She encouraged me to speak to my CEO, who was the one I worked closely with on most of my projects and would have the most context on how or what the next steps could be.
And hence, my next phone call, before calling my parents/in-laws, was to my CEO. This call was the foundational step to probably the most exciting next eight months for me in the company as well as one of the most impactful phases of my career.
While I rapidly exhaled all my worries on how now neither could I do my 12 hours, I might have to take leaves in between work week due to doctor appointments and won't be able to engage as well in the passionate debates on strategy/roadmap, etc., he calmed me down and told me my contributions were bigger than my hours or perfect attendance. He made me see as we proceed to the ‘adult life’ with responsibilities beyond just work, all we have to do is increase focus and efficiency in the few hours we can definitely contribute to work, bringing our all in that window, instead of hoping for an uber large window.
From that call and through my journey next eight months, I was able to realise a few levers which made it possible for me to contribute my max and bring impact while on this journey. Below are some things that I believed helped me navigate this so effectively:
1. Communicate that you need help
This, I believe, is one of the most underrated steps in the journey towards trying to manage work-life, specially in a time of need. In this state, I would have been unable to manage meetings, which were late at night, or handle the ones that were set at the very last minute. There were many such similar adjustments/help I needed from my team/peers etc. In this process, I realised we need to do two things :
Articulate exactly what you need
Not everyone would intuitively understand exactly what is required to enable you to function effectively unless you communicate and let them know. Hence articulating exactly what is needed for the next few months would help them actually help you.
Whether that was to my manager, my stakeholders, or my team, effective communication is very crucial.
Be open and honest
This process is a very natural one and needing help in this is natural. A lot of us can feel asking for help is a weakness, but I can't emphasise this enough, asking for help will only make your and your team's lives easier. Not only does it build empathetic.
One of the major reasons I was able to pull off the last eight months is my fabulous team. In the first week of finding out about my pregnancy, I got on a call with my team. We discussed timelines, possibility of my involvement/absence in each trimester, how they take up additional responsibilities in the six months I won't be there, and what I could do in the coming few months to groom them and prepare them for all the additional responsibilities.
Again, a key reason this worked was extreme transparency. I was able to share with them all my worries on my own unavailability front and they were able to share exactly what they could all do and what help they would need in the process.
Now, at the end of eight months, I can say that we were able to work through all absence, all expected and unexpected doctor visits with great efficiency and have an impact on our roadmap execution/impact.
Connecting back to my start of the journey phone call, one of the things that was immensely helpful to me was focus. I had a very open conversation with my manager at the start of this journey on exactly what was going to be my contribution to the company in the next eight months.
We were able to draw a one pager on my exact roles and responsibilities during this time, which I then shared with my work-circle. This ensured I wasn't added to or expected to attend meetings which had nothing to do with my charter.
All these steps allowed me to achieve my maximum in the shorter hours that I was present for office work now and ensured I was able to get most of my own goals/charter done.
4. Process instead of project
To be able to achieve success in the charter there are some very necessary steps. Building user centricity by making calls to users yourself , ensuring the designs of the new feature goes through a usability test etc., are some such steps which allowed me to ensure the quality of my work was high.
For the work done by my team and I , I ensured I fore-fronted a lot of these steps which while time taking made for higher chances of success. When faced with knowing I had limited hours to spare and an impending break, I spent a lot of time formalising the process for the larger team.
This enabled me to ensure these steps become a part of the culture itself and no longer would need to hustle on my end to ensure they are followed. This also made me realise:
‘Hustle doesn't scale, playbooks do’
Again, in case of infinite time it's easy to get lost in trying to do everything. But in the phase where I knew I could only work a set number of hours, I discovered how true and applicable the pareto principle is.
I realised those key places where my inputs made the most differences, the key meetings that needed me to achieve the max benefits and let go of all other things. This was especially helpful in the 8tth month where I had to literally cut down my work day to three to four hours a day.
And hence, to summarise, the steps to enable max potential in times such as pregnancy:
Prioritise->focus->create playbooks->delegate->ask for help
Following these steps didn't just allow me to survive the eight month phase, but to actually bring my A-game. I was able to grow from managing supply-sided platforms to managing supply+post-order delivery experience.
With doubled focus on a few things, I was able to take them forward in a much more deliberate way. Given I had a eight month limit before which I had to take a break, I went ahead and checked off a lot of items off my bucket list, writing a blog on this journey being pretty much the last one on the said list :)
In this last section, I actually want to call my team and my company out to be one of the highest on empathy and support during this whole period. Startups tend to have a reputation of being a boys club, where decisions get made in small groups and the only way to be heard is if you’re loud.
All this and more, which is commonly called out for most tech companies/startups due to the disproportionate male employee ratio, especially in the leadership who are the culture setters.
I have heard of companies who don't want to hire women married for a few years because they are worried these women would go on pregnancy leave or need a lot more time for their personal lives.
To each of these companies, I want to say, look at Dunzo to understand what real empathy looks like. My leadership supported me through this whole journey, fitting meetings to my preferred time slots. Instead of taking opportunities away, my charter actually grew in the last eight months with my seniors coaching me on how to be effective on this increased responsibility without having to stretch during the pregnancy.
The appraisal I got during the march cycle i.e. pretty much the beginning of the term was one of the best ones I had gotten till now, despite everyone knowing that I wasn't an attrition risk and they could have easily lowballed me.
In short, I was treated as a human, and not as a pregnant lady who would be a money sink for six months at least, and probably unreliable in the eight months before. I am scheduled for my delivery coming Sunday, i.e. first of August, and at the end of this period, I can't help but look back with gratitude and know that yes, while tech companies are notorious about their toxic cultures, there are a few out there who are better than what one could ever hope for and who make working in whatever circumstance a joy!
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)