How a one year old taught me a better way to work

23rd September 2019

As I have watched the shift to broader and longer parental leave policies over the past decade, I frequently joked to new parents that we had our kids about ten years too early.

For my family, the flexibility revolution came about 10 years too late.

In 2007 we had four boys under the age of six and I had a job at Johnson and Johnson that placed a premium on being present. Flexibility was an emerging theme, but like most companies and most employees, J&J was trying to work out what that meant – and so was I. After the birth of each of my boys, I took a few days of paternity leave on offer (as well as annual leave that I could take) but for me, it was back to the job as quickly as possible.

As I have watched the shift to broader and longer parental leave policies over the past decade, I frequently joked to new parents that we had our kids about ten years too early.

But in 2017 I started at Mirvac, where flexibility is more than just a buzzword - so much so, that it has challenged many of my views about work and indeed about myself.

Life Before Mirvac

For almost my entire career I believed work was work and home was home, and I kept them pretty separate. Being present in the office was my personal measure of productivity. I knew that some people worked flexibly but it wasn’t something that suited me - and I’m not sure I was entirely happy about it for others either (though I was careful to not let them know that).

And then, after working for corporates for nearly 20 years, I went to work in the NSW Government, and in 2014 I became chief-of-staff to NSW Premier Mike Baird.

Work in a political office was all-consuming, swallowing both a longer work day and also large chunks of time at home as well. Just stopping to breathe some days in Mike’s office was an achievement in itself. But, of course, that was appropriate for the role - but it also suited my thinking about work.

It was an absolute privilege to serve Mike and NSW, but while it was an incredible experience that expanded my skill sets and prepared me for many things, it certainly did not equip me for my next job where they encourage you to do pilates and yoga in work time (actually ... I may never be ready for that). 

My view of work – both for me and for others – needed to change to reflect how work itself in Australia is changing.

Empty chairs mean nothing

At Mirvac, to be chained to your desk or working for the sake of ‘being seen’ is viewed as out-of-date thinking and likely an inefficient use of time. As our CEO Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz often reminds us: work is what you do, it’s not who you are.

To be honest, it’s a concept I still sometimes struggle with. Maybe it's part of the burden of being a Gen-Xer. Or maybe I'm just a slow learner.

But at Mirvac, there is no such thing as being at your desk 9-5, or even 8-6. And it's certainly not a case of one rule for the part-time mums and another for the full-time executives. (Even in construction, where working flexibly is harder, we are making some headway, though we all acknowledge we need to do more to enhance flexibility at our construction sites.)

This culture makes the work flow rhythm at Mirvac a little more unpredictable – but only if you are looking for a person at a desk. The truth is that everyone knows that an empty chair doesn’t mean that work is not getting done.

Because we know from experience that the work ethic doesn’t change – in fact, I have seen that it increases. When you treat your employees like reliable adults they respond with even better outcomes. The trust levels (both ways) are much higher and result in extra effort as people reward the belief you have placed in them. This is seen across Mirvac, and is reflected in our engagement score.

And it's not that hard to do.

Soon after I started at Mirvac, ‘My Simple Thing’ was explained to me. Essentially employees choose one change they can make in their work week that will benefit their life. It might be working from home, choosing one day a week to stagger their hours or something else that suits their weekly rhythm and helps provide a bit more balance.

It sounded like a great idea and I was totally on board, at least in theory. I could see immediately how crucial it was for my team because three-quarters of them are working parents, and a number of them work part-time. Small things can make a huge difference.

And so, in an early team meeting, I encouraged (demanded?) that my new team adopt this practice and then chased each of them about their ‘My Simple Thing’.

The whole team took up the practice - and they were all great ideas, made a difference in their lives and I could see that the team’s already strong output improved even further.

For one of the team, it was breakfast with his son each Friday. For another, it was working from home three afternoons a week to help ease the after-school burden. My team love working for a company that cares about their whole lives, and allows them to deliver in the manner that worked best for them.


I wasn’t convinced it applied to me. I just didn’t think I needed a "My Simple Thing".

But in an early catch up, Susan pointed out the simplest rule of corporate leadership – your people look at what you do, not what you say.

And I watched as Susan would frequently and publicly leave the office before 6pm, and I saw her leave during working hours to do Pilates. I saw my colleagues in the Executive Leadership Team come in late on a Friday after doing school drop off or an early morning ride with their local bike club. And I saw this across the company and at all levels of the organisation.

It took me a while, but I finally worked it out - I needed to model for my team that it was “OK” to work flexibly. I needed to take up “My Simple Thing”.

And so, I have.

Each Wednesday, I pack up my desk by 5pm – which in prior working lives was often just the start of my afternoon shift - so that I can be home earlier to help set up the house in preparation for the dozen or so people who come around for our weekly Bible Study. It’s good for me to do it – but it’s even better for my family.

While the kids were initially surprised to see me home (“what are you doing home so early?”), given they are all teenagers or pretty close, the novelty of seeing Dad home before 6pm quickly wore off.

But the fact is, Wednesday evenings at home have been less stressful – for me, for my wife, for the family - due to an extra set of hands to help prepare the house. And that’s a good thing.

I was beginning to enjoy having my own My Simple Thing. I even began ignoring the guilt of walking out of the office ‘early’.

And then…

Then something happened that turned my family upside down and made me appreciate the transformative impact a flexible workplace culture can have on your life: we had a little girl join our family.

About 18 months ago, my wife and I applied to be foster parents. As you would expect, this is both a huge family decision and a lengthy process to undergo. But it was something the whole family (boys included) decided we wanted to do. So, we applied to Anglicare, were trained and interviewed and ultimately approved. We had to wait a few months, but then, with a week’s notice, a one-year-old appeared at our door. And our lives were turned upside down (in a lovely, chaotic, fantastic, rich way!).

It was actually my CEO Susan and co-head of HR Ben Morris who suggested that I should make use of Mirvac’s parental leave policy (Mirvac offers four weeks paid partner leave). It just hadn't occurred to me.

I didn’t dare refuse – after all, for years I had been joking that I had missed the parental leave bus. Now that the bus had (somewhat unexpectedly) pulled up again, I couldn’t NOT get on board.

And so, I am in the middle of taking the full four weeks parental leave. It has been such a blessing - it has given me time to get to know our foster daughter and her to know me, help her settle in as well as support my wife and sons as we adjusted to the whirlwind that comes when a toddler suddenly enters the house.

The flexibility in the policy meant I didn’t have to take it as a ‘block’, but I could take it in a way that best suited our family. So I took the first two weeks off after her arrival and then I have taken the remaining leave as individual days off over a number of months to enable my wife to take a break from full-time caring in a way that best suited our family calendar.

We've found new things to do as a 'new parent' (!) and also returned to some old favourites, including Taronga Zoo (multiple times!). That's where she found the meerkats.

I was surprised to discover…

I thought I would enjoy my time on parental leave, and I have. It’s been great to spend focused time with my kids and practically support my wife. It’s been great to get to know our foster daughter.

But I have gotten far more from the experience than just twenty days off.

I now have far greater empathy and understanding for working parents and part-timers who are trying to squeeze their job into four days a week – which is most of my team. I can see how hard it is to do, especially with the connected workplace of today.

I recognise even more clearly the value of shared parenting.

I understand leave is there to be taken and it is up to me to make those choices, and model it for others.

And I appreciate, more than ever, the great value of flexibility for work culture and business outcomes.

I have also learned that going to the beach with a toddler, even on a chilly wintry day, is much better than a planning meeting, that the Wiggles are still wiggling, that prams are even more high-tech (but not necessarily easier to use) and that slippery slides are still not just for kids.

I now have a new and special relationship with my foster daughter, one that would have taken far longer to build without this one-on-one time.

Fostering a child requires a steep adjustment curve and it is one our whole family is sharing. It's obvious, but a toddler makes you see the world in a different light every day – and sometimes in the early hours of the morning as well!

It is busy, it is unpredictable, it is tiring, but it is deeply joyful and a rich blessing to my family and me. We are all growing through this experience.

I know from parenting my four boys over a decade ago that those early days quickly disappear as life marches on. So we all want to make the most of this time.

We have a long, but good, road ahead - and I am grateful for a work culture that enables me to arrange my calendar to best suit my newly expanded family, and for an employer that values opportunities such as these, and urges me to take them ... sometimes in spite of myself.


Mirvac acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands and waters of Australia, and we offer our respect to their Elders past and present.  

Artwork: ‘Reimagining Country’, created by Riki Salam (Mualgal, Kaurareg, Kuku Yalanji) of We are 27 Creative.