Kerry Capsanis, head of brand and marketing services at the University of Sydney, talks about the importance of openly asking for work flexibility and spending more time with the kids

by Liz Benson

Kerry Capsanis, head of brand and marketing services, University of Sydney
Number of kids: 1
Age of kids: 4.5

Can you describe what’s involved in doing your job on a day-to-day basis?

Most of the time I’m in meetings or catching up with staff. This can include meeting with agencies about campaigns or commissioning some market research. It could be talking to suppliers and vendors that are enabling digital technology for us, or it could be doing some planning or budgeting at a strategic level.

Since I spend so much time in meetings, it’s hard to work from home. If I find a pocket in my diary where there is an afternoon free, which is rare, then I can work from home. We do have great video conferencing facilities here and that’s a standard part of meetings these days, which makes it easier. But sometimes it’s just easier to be in the room with people.

For tasks that require deep thought, it’s good to work from home for the quiet space, since we have an open plan environment at work. I’d love a bit more quiet time because I’m an introvert by nature and, while I function well in the open plan, I do need to retreat every now and then into a quiet room or space. We also have signs to avoid disturbing people such as if they’re wearing headphones.

What’s important to you in a role? 

It’s important to work in an industry or organisation that I believe in and can align myself with. I want something that is challenging but fun as well. It has to be a mix of strategic work, thinking, and also getting stuff done. That makes me tick along.

I love education because the value of education is immense and has such a transformative power. For anyone that’s involved in education, it can have such an impact on their lives. I would struggle to see myself working in industries where there’s no real purpose or value.

Did you have any personal concerns or worries in relation to family or out-of-work commitments when you started combining working and parenting?

For sure. I was petrified. I was so worried about not performing at work. And worried people would think if I was working from home then I’d be letting them team down. That was all in my head and wasn’t the case but I was driven to make sure I was getting everything done, with no change to my performance. I thought it was essential to prove that my team could always access me whenever they wanted and my child wasn’t restricting my work capacity in any way.

For a long time, I tried to just keep up the hours. When my son was one or two onwards, while he slept during the day, I would work from home one day a fortnight. But I was so obsessed with getting the work done that I missed the time with him. It wasn’t until he stopped sleeping in the day that I realised that I couldn’t work anymore. So, I decided to give myself a break and accepted that he wasn’t going to be tiny and cute forever, he’ll be at school. I thought, why not spend the day with him when I’ve got it?

So, I negotiated to do that. All of my work still got done, and it was fine, and no one thought I was underperforming. We put so much pressure on ourselves. I was kicking myself for losing that time with him. But I was able to rectify it early enough that we had some quality time together. I now work a nine-day fortnight and try to just be with him in the moment rather than taking work calls on my day off.

What kind of support do you have at work and outside of work? How do you and your partner share the load?

I have lots of support at work to manage my load. I have a great manager who gives me the space I need and empowers me to work out what I need to do. I work at a university and it has very generous entitlements for staff, so there’s a lot of capacity to work flexibly. I’m lucky that I have a manager that has children and she paves the way and models the behaviour. When she has to leave early to pick up her kids and doesn’t apologise for that, it makes a difference and puts everyone else at ease.

It’s very important for managers to model that behaviour because it sends a signal that it’s fine to do that. That could be for any kind of flexibility or any sort of things that are happening outside of work. It’s important to acknowledge that there is life outside work and competing priorities. For us it’s children but for others it’s something else. It’s important to keep flexible working visible and open, so it can be discussed. I’m not going to apologise for needing to leave a meeting at 5pm to pick up my son. I learned that from my manager.

My partner also works a nine-day fortnight so our son is only in daycare four days a week. There are times when our son goes to bed, my partner and I are both getting on our laptops and doing work while he’s in bed. We’d rather do that than be on the computer while he’s awake. We’re in it together.

What are your work commitments?

I’m office-based most of the time and the hours are pretty long I’d say. Most evenings I’m still online, working and doing emails. If I’m sending emails to team, I use the function that lets you send it later, so they’re not getting emails after 8pm but they can get them the next day. Most evenings I work after my son goes to bed.

Weekends are mine and I like to avoid working from Friday night until Monday.

I’ve also been doing an MBA for the last five years, which sometimes involved classes in the evenings or on weekends as well as study time. I’ve only just finished that now. It was just another thing to juggle in and around work and home as well. However, I put study in the work bucket as much as possible to keep it from impacting our home life.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced finding a balance between work and parenting commitments?

Accepting that some days you think you’re going to work and then you’ll get a phone call and you can’t go to work after all. You can’t control it. You think you can control things but you can’t control a child’s temperature, for example. I try to be organised but the biggest challenge was accepting that it won’t always go to plan, and being OK with that. And just accepting that some days you have to be at home with your kid because he’s sick. And you’ll have to miss meetings and can’t deliver something but you can’t do anything about it.

How long did you take maternity leave/time out of your career with each of your children?

None. My partner had our son and she was off with him for the first year. I had a couple of weeks when he was born. She took the year off and went back to work part time, and then it was becoming difficult for her to get her work done part time. That’s when we decided to share and both do nine-day fortnights.

What advice would you give someone before commencing maternity leave?

It’s hard because every woman is different. From my experience with my partner, the first six months are hard and it’s good to have a connection. It’s an identity thing; you’re good at work, then you’re doing something where you don’t feel as capable. That’s challenging for every new mum.

Some of my staff planning parental leave have said they want to come back full time and my advice would be don’t rush it. Spend the time with your child. I wish I had taken some parental leave. Now our son is going to school and I wish I had spent more time with him. At the time, I thought I had to get back to work but, if I had my time again, I’d spend more time with him. Work will always be there.

What advice would you give someone returning to their career after having kids?

I’d approach it by thinking about all facets of your life. Not just thinking about what you need to deliver at work and the hours you need to do, but thinking about what you need in your home life. For me, it’s time with my family. I love my job, but there are other parts of who I am.

I remember I was so worried about asking for flexibility but I didn’t need to worry. It’s so important to have it. Women are amazing and can do lots of different things. We can be great at our jobs and spend time with our families. It is possible and you don’t have to choose one over the other.

Do you find time for yourself? And if so, how and what do you use it for?

Not really, because I’ve been studying and working as well. The only time would be when I go to the gym or practice yoga, which I do four days a week.

Do you have a daily routine and, if so, what does it look like?

I get up 5:10am and go to the gym. When I come back our son is just waking up. My partner goes to work early, so I get our son ready for childcare and drop him off, usually at about 7:30-8am. Then I’m at work from 8:30 onwards. I might leave work around 5:30 and go home. My partner picks up our son from childcare, then she comes home and makes dinner. By the time I get home, our son is in the bath. Then we all have dinner together. He’s in bed by 7:30 and we read books with him. From 8pm I catch up on work or try to watch some TV without falling asleep. I go to bed around 10pm.

If you could do anything differently in relation to developing your career over the years, what would it be (if anything)?  

I’ve just finished my MBA which took five years. I would have done that earlier in my career. That has been an incredible career experience for me in terms of the connections I’ve made and the experience that I’ve had. I just wish I’d done it earlier so I could have leveraged it sooner.