As part of Women@Imperial week and International Women's Day, we met with Dr Maria Gomez-Romero to discuss her experiences of being a working mother.
In this interview, Maria, the Mass Spectrometry and Chromatography Manager in the Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction, dispels the stigma around flexible and home working, highlights the policies and tech that support new mothers at Imperial and underlines the benefits these policies are having on the working culture of the newly formed Section of Bioanalytical Chemistry.
Why is flexible working important for you?
As someone who doesn’t have family who live in London, the flexible working opportunities offered by Imperial and the Section have been incredibly important to me and my young family. As parents will know, sometimes you just have to be there for your children and being given the trust and flexibility to do that takes a huge weight off my shoulders. The option to work flexibly when needed, really helped me overcome some of the guilt I felt as a working mother.
How often are you in the office?
We are in the office most of the time! It is a misconception that a team which utilises flexible working is not in the office or contactable. It is pretty normal to arrange the workload and week’s schedule to accommodate one WFH day a week - sometimes not even that. We make sure that our staff are available or contactable during core hours by a number of different means including telephone, messaging and e-mail.
But the whole point of the policy is that it is flexible, and our team works in a way that supports that flexibility. Sometimes it might not be necessary to work from home but instead, there is a need to start a little later to accommodate childcare. Our Section’s trust and flexibility allows for that.
How many working mothers are there in the Section?
A large portion of our team are working mums. About 50% of the Section are new parents (children under the age of four), with the majority of those being women. This includes our NMR and MS facility managers, our head of clinical R&D, and our head of metabolite identification. These are positions of responsibility and accountability, both within the team and to external collaborators, and in all cases, the roles require excellent and consistent communication. We all have to perform at a consistently high level and do so together as a team.
What Imperial policies do the working parents in your team utilise?
As I've mentioned, many of us use the flexible working so that we can still drop our children off at childcare or school, while some of the team WFH once a week; all of which is pre-agreed with and actively managed by line managers and Section management.
Imperial’s My Family Care service has also been used by some members of the team. The service offers support finding emergency childcare or school holiday cover, something which can be extremely helpful for new parents who are returning to work. There are also several networks and meetings, like the Babies and Bumps network, so that new parents and parents to be can get useful advice and support.
What tech do you use to support your flexible working?
The team has always been quite widely spread across Imperial's different campuses, and as such we have always used the tech and software available to stay in contact with the team.
We are always contactable via email and mobile, but we have now also started utilising other technology offered by the College. We use Teams to contact each other via IM (instant messaging) and to organise our meetings so that people can easily ‘remote in’ to participate.
We also extensively use TeamSeer as a team. Each Monday, after our management meeting, we will input any work WFH plans we have for that week. This enables us to keep track of WFH days across the group and allows everyone to check where colleagues are.
How have you changed your workday structure because of flexible working?
We want to nurture an environment of trust in the Section, where people are comfortable utilising the flexible working policies on offer. But also, at the same time, we want to make sure that the team are still being productive and keeping on top of their work. As such, I manage my own time and support those I line manage much more precisely because of flexible working.
I think this has had a benefit on the way I work and has made me consider the best environment to do certain tasks. For instance, there are certain tasks that we have found are actually better done at home, away from the distractions of a shared office. This has become so apparent, that even those in the team without children, now take “write up days” out of the office as a method of increasing their productivity.
How has Section Management supported flexible working?
Management is extremely supportive of the team and its use of flexible working policies. Our Head of Section, Dr Matt Lewis, has always supported me and the other parents in the Section. However, since he has had his own child, I think there is even more of an understanding of the importance of flexible working and the benefits it can have on parents.
Matt also works with the team to ensure they make the most out of their work from home time. When members of the team have a WFH day, he asks them what they are planning to work on and what their objectives are for that day. We might briefly chat at the start or end of the workday to discuss plans or how things went. This allows him to know what his team are working on, how well tasks are progressing, and it helps motivate the team to have productive days away from the office, where they achieve specific goals.
What was your experience of maternity leave and returning to work?
You know parenthood will change your life but it's hard to know how much until you go through it. It changes your priorities, and I found that at the beginning it led to a lot of guilt. Before I had a child, work was my priority and I used to work extra hours when needed. However, when I first returned from maternity leave, I would not only feel guilty being at work and away from my child but also when I was leaving work to be with my child.
The flexible policies the Section offered, as well as the support of my management and team, helped me deal with this feeling, reducing my guilt and stress. This support was fundamental in helping me cope with all the change and meant I could work towards a better work-life balance, something which I have now achieved.
For more information on Imperial’s flexible and home working policies, please visit the HR website.
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