1. Crystallise how big a part you want work to be in your life

Once your child has arrived and you have a good idea about how much your outlook on your career has or hasn't changed, be honest with yourself about how much time you would like or need to devote to work. Carry on the same as before? Full-time but with certain caveats? Four days a week, including one day from home? It's helpful to be clear on time boundaries before thinking in more detail about the nature of your work. Be prepared to not get what you want - it's useful to have in mind the worst case you'll accept. Remember that if you aren't successful in your renegotiations, things aren't set in stone and you are legally entitled to make a flexible working request in another 12 months.

2. Audit your strengths and consider your future aspirations

To what extent are you aware of your strengths? Are you making optimum use of them at work? Research by positive psychologists who study human flourishing, wellbeing and peak performance has found that people's performance at work is elevated when they draw primarily on their strengths to deliver a given task or project. Reflecting on your strengths will help you be more compelling in your discussions about the what, why and how of re-shaping your role. The following questions may help you think about your strengths and future aspirations:

  • What were the best pieces of feedback you received in the 12 months before leave?
  • What was the high point in your performance? 
  • What qualities come up time and again when colleagues talk about you?
  • When did you feel most motivated? And what was it about that time that stands out?
  • What were you doing the last times you felt satisfyingly stretched? Want more of it?
3. Get up to speed on who and what's changed

There are likely to have been a variety of shifts in your organisation whilst you've been away; projects, people, clients, processes and the remit of your team could have changed. Spending some time (on a KIT day) exploring what, how and who has changed could throw up ideas about the type of activities and responsibilities you could make a case for taking up when you return.

4. Build an informed view of your employer's (and clients') future needs

As someone who has stepped out of your organisation for an extended period, you have the ability to see it afresh. Perhaps you have a different view on how projects could be run or clients serviced? Some employees who have taken a career break talk about getting 'itchy feet' whilst away and spending their time reading trade journals or accessing other resources that relate to their work or professional development. Equally, many people don't do this - you may not have the time, energy or inclination. If you do form a view about how your employer’s or clients' needs are likely to change, you can weave this into your discussions to support your argument for altering your role.

5. Spot the opportunities for realising your ideal scenario

Taking your strengths (6.), what and who's changed at work (7.) and your employer's future needs (8.) together, what comes to mind? Is there a way for the three things to come together? You may have a few thoughts and jotting them down on paper and/or discussing them with a trusted colleague, friend or coach could help you formulate clearer ideas to present to your line manager. Being able to give a rationale for reshaping your role that goes beyond your personal needs/preferences (ie demonstrating business benefits and how your proposals would be good for more than just you) helps you be seen as committed and more likely to experience career premiums. (See research by Leslie et al, 2012).

6. Use Keep In Touch (KIT) days to float ideas

KIT days are an ideal opportunity to share some of your thinking about how you would like to reshape your role. You could use one of the first KIT days to make suggestions about how you see your role changing and this may include both changes to the content of your role (what you do) and flexible working (how you do it). Your line manager may need time to talk to others or think through the implications of your suggestions before he or she can have a full discussion - in which case, make an appointment to talk in a couple of weeks (at another KIT day). An alternative approach is to send your thoughts a couple of weeks ahead of a planned discussion.

>> Remember that your employer can take up to 12 weeks to respond to a flexible working application so if your renegotiations include changes to your hours or pattern of working, you need to factor this in to your discussion timetable.

"I spoke to my line manager as early as possible when thinking of changing my hours to say what I was considering and to discuss what he thought would be workable. We then had a lot of time to think about how it would work and to build up to the change, rather than it being sudden."

Jenny Allan, senior associate, CMS Cameron McKenna

7. Be prepared to negotiate

If the answer to your proposals is not a straightforward 'yes', be prepared to negotiate. Ask searching questions of your line manager to understand which aspects he or she is happy with (and why) and which he or she has reservations about. Try to adopt a genuinely curious approach to your discussions to flush out what's going on in his or her mind. Listening well and taking notes about objections gives you a better chance of addressing them either at the time or at a later date. You may decide to seek allies (see the How to pitch for flexible working guide) to help you get closer to your ideal scenario.

8. Agree a new job description

Both you and your line manager being clear on how your role has changed, before you return to work, is important. It sets you both up for a smoother transition than if there is still ambiguity about what you are going to be expected to do when you come back. Good practice is to have this documented (and relevant internal HR process followed) ahead of your return. Depending on the extent of the changes and how they affect your team (particularly direct reports) clients and other colleagues, it's helpful if you or your line manager can highlight what's different, what's staying the same and answer any questions.

"I was the first female partner at Morton Fraser to have a child, so I felt a particular responsibility to get it right for future women. I was lucky in that I was already a partner and so had a team to support me. I was always willing to take calls from my team when I was not at work and described myself as a 'full-time partner working part-time in the office'."

Linda Urquhart, chairman, Morton Fraser