Fern & Rose meets: Louisa Gommans
When it comes to flexible working, opportunities can sometimes feel few and far between. There’s all too often tension between employers and employees, with new parents in particular feeling torn between their careers and their families. But what about when it goes well? Wellington-based lawyer Louisa Gommans has a flexible working good news story – and it all began with a single conversation.
Fern & Rose (F&R): Hi Louisa! What do you do?
Louisa Gommans (LG): I’m a commercial lawyer for Rainey Collins in Wellington. Before my son Theo was born last year, I was working in the office five days a week. While I was pregnant, my Dad decided he would semi-retire and move to Wellington. The plan was my husband would continue to work full time as a website developer, I would go back to work three days a week and my Dad would do Poppa daycare for those three days.
But after Theo was born, that all changed. I was waking up in the night, thinking ‘I just don’t want to go back into the office yet. I’m not ready’. We’re lucky with my husband’s job that I don’t need to work full time but I still need to do something – and probably for my brain a bit as well. I didn’t think a law firm would let me do something more flexible than three days a week.
I went to talk to my work and tell them I wasn’t coming back. They completely surprised me. They said they would love it if I didn’t leave and asked what they could do to make it work. We reached an agreement where they would send me project work to do at home, with the option to go back into the office when it suited everyone. It’s been a big a change because I don’t see clients and am working at home on my own, but it works well in terms of project work and keeping my head in the game.
I started working at home a couple of days a week for the firm, while my dad looks after Theo. It’s good having them in the house or nearby at Poppa’s; I can have a lunch break and pop out and see them. I’m still learning that juggle; when I can hear him down the hallway I know I need to put on my noise-cancelling headphones and work, rather than go and interact with him. But the flexibility is amazing. My dad can start when I’m ready. I know what I need to get done, I’m in charge of when I do it and then when I’m done, I’m back and there’s my baby right there.
More recently, as I’ve become more comfortable with spending time away from Theo, I’ve started going into the office one day a week, which is good for staying in contact with my colleagues and keeping a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. It shows I’m still committed and will be coming back into the office more frequently when this phase of life changes again.
F&R: Were you surprised that you didn’t want to go back to the office?
LG: Yeah. I thought I’d be rearing to go back. But I realised that Theo’s only going to be little for such a short time. I really didn’t want to miss out. I would rather be behind in years of experience than be looking at these few years and thinking I didn’t get to spend enough time with him.
Lots of other parents have said to me that they wish they’d had more time with their children when they were little. People don’t tell you that from their experience and not want you to kind of learn from it, you know? It was a huge shift in priorities, which I think kids do for you anyway. Your view on almost everything changes. The ambitious bit of my head is definitely still there, but I’ve got a different priority at the moment.
F&R: Law firms aren’t known for offering flexible working opportunities. What did your firm do that you think others could learn from?
LG: I had those assumptions about the industry – but they had nothing to do with where I actually work. I was surprised they were open to such a flexible arrangement, but it was all because I hadn’t thought to ask. The type of law I do is quite client-focused, so I had assumed I’d need to be in the office and if I wasn’t, how could it possibly work?
I went in to tell them I wouldn’t be coming back to work. I didn’t think what I wanted was compatible with the job. But they didn’t write it off and say ‘ok, you can go’. Instead, they took the time to listen to what was concerning me and what I wanted. And they offered me a solution that meant I could work from home on project work. It’s an awesome vote of confidence from them; ‘we value you’ and want to keep your talent in the firm. There are other parents in the office with flexible working arrangements, too. It’s pretty cool.
F&R: The other part of your working life is your editing and proofreading business, Underline It. How did that come about?
LG: I have some experience of editing from other walks of life. I figured I know people who work in various industries who must want an editor! I’ve got the word out through word of mouth and a little bit of Facebook and so far I’ve had a surprising number of enquiries. It’s early days; the first week of April was my first week of work.
Working at home, I’ve found I’m more efficient. I rely on myself to manage my time and motivate myself to get the work done. It all seems to work really well. My dad and Theo love each other and love hanging out, so I don’t sit there wondering what he’s doing and hoping he’s ok. I just know they’re having a nice time.
F&R: What do you and Theo get up to during the rest of the week, when it’s just the two of you?
LG: Well, we go out every day these days. Earlier, it was because I needed to see friends. Now, it’s because our house isn’t big enough to keep him contained for a whole day! We like to go to things like rock and rhyme at the library and to Capital E and Te Papa. I like to go op shopping, so Theo likes to go op shopping, too! We like to get out and about. I’ve lived here for 11 years now but since Theo was born I’ve seen totally different parts of Wellington and parts I’d seen before in totally different ways.
F&R: Last question – what’s your top piece of advice for new parents?
LG: Trust your instinct. I mean, what do I know?! I’m making it up everyday. But there’s been a lot of times when I’ve thought Theo needed something or I needed to do something and then that’s been exactly the right thing. I think it’s more intuitive than we recognise in this day and age. So trust your gut. There’s a lot of fluff in the world that gets in your head and makes you question and makes you worry. But a lot of the time if you just listen to yourself, you already know.
Louisa offers editorial and proofreading services through her business Underline It