With only a handful of reasons why you might take a year off work; sabbatical, career break, parental leave, it’s not something you tend to do lots of times within your career. Whilst I’m still processing what I’ve noticed about the changes to the industry and our business, I naturally find myself writing about how my experiences as a new parent have changed my outlook at work.
New life brings new perspectives
I’ve always been a strong believer that life is too short for shoddy, unnecessarily long and complicated experiences. I doubt I would be in this industry if I didn’t feel passionate about this. What I hadn’t realised before, was the position of privilege I was saying this from. Working a 40-hour week, earning a good salary, living in a lovely home and with only myself to look after (and my hubby to cook for!) meant that I had an abundance of ‘spare’ time in my life for all those little tasks – buying a birthday present, sorting out home insurance, researching the next home project. If any of these weren’t an optimal user experience, I noticed it (the curse of working in UX) but would ultimately continue the task with minimal impact on my day.
Fast forward 18 months, I’m trying to cram those ‘life-min’ tasks into a short and unpredictable nap time while drinking a stone-cold cuppa. If the task takes a frustratingly long time or it’s full of unnecessary friction, I feel it. I really feel it. While I recognise that I still speak from a place of privilege and a comfortable life, I do have a whole new understanding of the impact bad experiences can have. Especially when you’re sleep-deprived and overwhelmed with the mental load of bringing up a small child.
When you’re designing a service it’s so important to consider the wider context; knowing who your users are isn’t enough; to understand how to design something that works for them you have to understand their world, their environment and what else will be going on whilst they’re trying to complete said task.
That could be a screaming baby to look after, but equally, it could be a high-pressure job with a fear of getting sacked, or a stressful environment that impacts their ability to focus.
The more we can immerse ourselves in our users’ worlds the more chance we have of designing something which not only meets their needs but also removes one less piece of friction from their day-to-day.
Learning to let go
If being on maternity leave taught me one thing, it’s that you cannot predict or control anything, other than that your baby will be totally inconsistent (at least that’s my experience). Before becoming a Mum, I enjoyed being in control, both at home and at work. I liked everything to be ‘just so’. Since having a baby, I’ve had to encourage myself to let go. Whilst it was not easy at first, after plenty of practice I feel that I am now able to embrace the unpredictable without it causing too much stress. What I hadn’t realised at the time, was how much this would help me when returning to work and to my new role.
Returning to work after maternity leave is a huge adjustment and I still feel like I’m at the beginning of that transition period. Throw in returning to a whole new role with a totally different focus and set of responsibilities, and I found myself in very new waters. The biggest adjustment for me in this transition to being the Head of UX was the realisation that I’m no longer leading project work. Thanks to my newfound ability to let go, I’m able to sit in the back seat, giving the team the freedom to drive their projects forward.
If I find myself slipping back into old habits and being a backseat driver, I remind myself that it’s my role to challenge and coach the team, ensuring they have all the support and opportunities to learn and grow. And what a fantastic job they are doing, one of the very first things I noticed on my return was how much the team had developed since 2020. Every workshop I joined left me feeling impressed and excited about that project and the wider future at EUX.
Getting creative and always growing
The thing that excites me most about this new role is the opportunity to get creative with ideas for the services we provide, the way we communicate with clients and the frameworks that underpin everything we do. The chance to work on opportunities that we often spot while in the depths of a project but can’t always action right away. Whilst we always aim to create breathing room in our schedules to work on side projects alongside client work, inevitably this gets postponed when other high priority tasks come along.
The benefit of not leading projects is that this role gives me the freedom to get creative and work on those ideas – whilst ensuring the team has everything they need to succeed in delivering their projects. I’ve craved this creative outlet for a while now, so I won’t be wasting it! It does also mean my stash of books to read is growing by the week as I seek out new perspectives and inspiration for what I’m working on.
Writing this article has reminded me of just how important it is to take a moment to pause and reflect. I’d recommend it to anyone returning from a significant period of leave. It’s a good opportunity to raise your head from the to-do list and really appreciate how you’ve changed, it’s all too easy to get lost somewhere between nursery drop-offs and work meetings otherwise!
My biggest takeaway is that I’d forgotten how much I enjoy what I do, it’s a big part of my identity. I’m excited to be back, with a whole set of new perspectives and life experiences, and ready to get stuck in. I’ll also never take sitting down and drinking a hot coffee for granted!