Flexibility at the top

Sarah Lavan is a tax partner at the major accounting and consultancy firm Deloitte and has risen up the ranks while working flexibly, proving that marrying a good work life balance with being a senior manager can be done. Deloitte, which is sponsoring tomorrow’s Workingmums LIVE exhibition, is keen to promote flexible working as a way of increasing diversity among its staff at all levels.

Sarah Lavan is a tax partner at the major accounting and consultancy firm Deloitte and has risen up the ranks while working flexibly, proving that marrying a good work life balance with being a senior manager can be done.

Deloitte, sponsor of the Workingmums LIVE exhibition, is keen to promote flexible working as a way of increasing diversity among its staff at all levels. Sarah’s experience shows how attitudes to flexible working have shifted over the past decade.

Although she grew up in Holland, Sarah opted to go to Reading University to study law as her British family retained strong links, intended to become a barrister after graduating. She had to do unpaid apprenticeship so opted to get a job to pay for it. She joined KPMG and enjoyed the job so much that she stayed until 1995 when she moved to Deloitte.

Her move was followed by promotion to a managerial role. In 1996, she got married and her first daughter Megan was born in 1997. On maternity leave, the family moved to Switzerland and she took a full-time post in Deloitte’s Zurich office.

She stayed in Switzerland until just after the birth of her second child. Three to four weeks after the birth she had to undergo an assessment to be a director. “I was still breastfeeding and they wouldn’t let you leave the place where the assessment was taking place for a day and a half so I had to keep going out to feed the baby,” she remembers. “I had two huge wet patches on my shirt during my presentation. I wanted the ground to swallow me up.”

Early return to work

Sarah returned to work slightly earlier than intended in order to ensure she was on track for progression. In hindsight, says Sarah, it was good to have returned to work so early, but at the time it was “very painful”. “One of my friends at work’s husband had died the week I went back to work, though. I felt awful fretting about leaving my baby when her husband had died,” she says. “The work environment was quite different then and the notions of flexible working and work life balance were not popular. You have to make the best decision in the circumstances and in the end it worked out.”

It was very different with her third daughter, who is now six. She was a partner by the time she was born and took nine months off for maternity leave – “the time I needed” – but kept her eye on her emails throughout. “It gave me a real feeling of being in control,” she says. “I knew I could be aware of what was happening in the work place – and it made returning to work easier.”

When she went back she asked to work one day a week from home. “I felt that I wanted to be there one day a week when the children came home from school. When you get back at 7.30pm they have forgotten what they have done during the day,” she says. “I really didn’t want to sacrifice that. I just needed one day when I could pick them up from school. Initially we thought about doing it informally but I wanted everyone to know and be on board with it so I suggested a trial period,” she says.

She now works most Wednesdays from home which helps her to break up the week. She also reckons she is more productive as a result and says she logs in till later on that day. “I take things home to review on Wednesdays so that I can work uninterrupted. I am very focused,” she says.

Honesty

She is very determined that she is honest about the way she works, both with her team and her clients. “I don’t want to hide it,” she says. “If I have to go to an assembly, I say so. People know I will make up the time and that it doesn’t happen every day.”

She adds that she feels that working mums should be able to be honest about work life balance issues, but they should also be honest about whether a flexible work request is reasonable given how it will impact their team. “You need to get the balance right,” she says. “The biggest compliment you can get if you work flexibly is that people don’t notice it.”

As a result of the flexibility she has, she says there are gains for the team. It means, for one, that she is happy to stay late at other times. She hopes that her openness about her work arrangements have a knock-on effect on others, including other partners and her team members. She manages at team of 55 which is expanding in June and many are parents.

She says that, although she doesn’t have a typical day, she generally drops her oldest daughter off at 7.30am and is in the office by 8.30am. She gets home between 6 and 7pm and her children stay up until then to spend time with her. She doesn’t generally log on at night as that is her girls’ time, but she may check her Blackberry at weekends.

“I have never missed a Nativity play or anything important at school. If there is an Easter bonnet parade at school it is in my diary. Ultimately,” she says, “having children puts my job more into perspective and means I am better at managing the work life balance to ensure I can maintain my commitments to both.”





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