I Came Back From Maternity Leave to a WFH World, and Here’s What’s Better

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I went on maternity leave from my role as CMO of Chatbooks in the strangest of times—signing off on March 17th, just a few days into our dramatic switch to remote work life. A mere week earlier all had been “normal” and I’d hung out at our headquarters, gone to lunch with colleagues and joked that I was having a baby at a perfect time in our slower season—everything was set up for a few months of smooth sailing.

As we all know, that was about as wrong as a prediction could possibly get. And while I wanted to help my team navigate through the transition in mid-March, I knew that there was an incredibly strong team in place to handle things and that I wouldn’t be much help in my exhausted, newborn baby haze. So I went offline.

When I came back 12 weeks later, I got to experience a whole new way of working all at once, without going through the daily hard incremental steps to get there. I also got to see all the little things that had become “normed” with fresh new eyes. Here’s what I noticed was working so well, and how you can try it in your own organization.

It’s Crickets on Slack

While we’ve always had a culture of flexibility at Chatbooks, we’ve also had a culture of Slack communication, where people always had Slack open and would answer things quickly—during work, and on nights and weekends. The “asterisk” was that no one expected an immediate answer, but it was often easier to just jump into a conversation in semi-real time than to wait until normal business hours. Plus, our colleagues are also friends, so we’d veer into hang-out territory just as often as “work” territory.

But when I came back, I literally thought my slack channels weren’t updating, it was so quiet. At night, I’d open the app, pull to refresh, and see nothing new. I’d try again. Same thing. My first weekend back, I would go open my laptop just to confirm that my slack app wasn’t broken. I realized that while we were fully embracing asynchronous work, we were also trying to help with boundaries. When work is at home, it’s easier to feel like it’s all work—and one way to protect “life time” is to not send work messages that can wait until normal hours.

To me, this seemed like a dramatic difference from the work life I was used to—almost as dramatic as now working from home instead of our office! But when I asked around, it had never been an official new policy. Instead, it started from the top and people began to pull back bit by bit as they saw the executive team messaging less during off hours. Soon what was a norm (messaging in the moment) was replaced by a new norm (messaging mostly during more normal business hours).

Try it: Have everyone take Slack (or other messaging apps) off their phones for one week. If people need to check in outside of normal hours, they can get on their computer to do so. But simply taking the Slack habit loop off of your phone goes a long way toward seeing if something can wait.

The Rise of the “No Agenda” Call

When I came back from maternity leave with my first child in 2017, I found it really helpful to have 1:1 check-ins with people across the team. I spent my first week or so in lots of casual walks around the block and coffee chats. I planned the same thing for my onboarding this summer, but this round they were phone call “walk-and-talks.” I loved getting a 30 minute chat in while covering a mile on the road. But while in 2017 those check-ins were “one and done,” this time I found that phone call catch-ups across all areas of the team were a growing norm. Now a “no-agenda” call is something we can put on a calendar, lace up sneakers for and just talk like we would if we were carpooling or sitting at the same lunch table.

Try it: Pick a few colleagues who you don’t regularly work with on-on-one, and set up a no-agenda call. Say upfront that you’ll be walking (or driving, or keeping an eye on kids) so the expectation is set that this is informal and about life, not work!

Side Chats Are Everything

I’ll be honest, pre-pandemic I thought “side-conversations”—those slacks and texts happening during the real meeting while someone was talking—were rude. Pay attention to the person who is talking! But since coming back to a remote world where true watercooler conversations don’t exist, I’ve found that they are LIFE. A private chat during a zoom call (“hey—new haircut!?”) might be the only chance I get to connect with a colleague, and those little moments are what make us feel like we’re all in this together. I noticed it happening when I returned, and now I encourage the “Zoom chats” during meetings—we can pay attention to the main conversation with 90 percent of our brains and still say hi to those little squares or continue a conversation with typing that starts verbally.

Try it: Open up the chat feature during a video call and pick one or two people to send a message to, or drop in a funny link or image for everyone to enjoy.

The Pick-Up-the-Phone Movement

In the olden pre-COVID days, we would always set up a time to call or video call someone—it seemed odd to jump into their world without first checking in, giving them a chance to move to a quiet conference room, etc. But now, when typing conversations can go on for pages and pages, I’ve found it’s easier to simply call—and by norming it, we make that “incoming call” notification as stress-free as possible. And even that extra “hey, I’m calling you!” can feel like too much, so we often skip it.

Try it: Tell people you’re just going to start calling and video calling, with no heads up. Then, as soon as you find yourself typing out a long message or going back and forth, just call—as if you were sitting a few feet away from someone and wanted to swing by. If you would walk over in person, call now!

There are lots of parts about working from home that are H.A.R.D (Childcare! Missing my colleagues! Those quick brainstorms on-the-fly!) But these are a few things that are much much nicer, and have made for a better and more productive work life. Let me know if you try anything that works for you and your team.


Rachel Hofstetter is Chief Marketing Officer at Chatbooks, the easiest and most affordable way to turn your digital photos into gorgeous photo books, prints or wall art in just a few minutes. She joined the company over four years ago when Chatbooks acquired her company Guesterly, a who’s who guide to events as a customized guidebook shared with attendees, featuring an easy reference of event guests for seamless networking. Prior to that she was an editor at O, the Oprah Magazine and Reader’s Digest. She’s also a bestselling author of Cooking Up a Business, an inside look at how food entrepreneurs (from Popchips and Hint Waters to Vosges Haut Chocolat and the guy who invented the Big Mac) turned their dreams into reality.



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