Taking the right steps to support new parents in the workplace does more than exemplify your people-first work culture. There’s also a business case for it: increasing the loyalty and retention of your experienced employees.
Consulting organizations on their return-to-work and parental support programs, Daisy Dowling, CEO of Workparent, explains that professionals regularly tell her the reason they chose or would never leave a particular company is the great parental support they offer. That might include a phased return-to-work program, childcare options, mentorship programs and ERGs, or simply the flexibility to make school drop-offs.
“The thing that I see most often in terms of the impact of these types of programs, approaches, and actions is a tremendous sense of employee loyalty,” she says. “You have to get things right, but when you do, that’s the kind of loyalty you get.”
Supporting parents at work can also help boost productivity. Priya Krishnan, chief digital and transformation officer at childcare provider Bright Horizons, notes that your employees must be anchored at home before they can be productive at work. Once they feel their family needs are met, they’re able to focus on their professional endeavors that help strengthen and grow your company.
“This is not about trying to entice people back; the intention is really high,” Krishnan says. “It’s about how employers can support their employees in that transition.”
To strengthen your company while supporting your employees’ family and professional goals, here are some ways to ensure a smooth transition back to the office after parental leave.
Start Before Your Employee Returns
Establishing the proper parental support in your organization involves not only developing the policies and programs but also the actual management practices, explains Dowling.
This often requires leadership training to ensure managers address parental leave in a way that destigmatizes it, using supportive language such as, “I’m so happy for you! Here are the benefits we provide and how I can help with this transition.” Managers must also understand company policies and ensure parents have equal access to them.
Communication is critical. Long before an employee’s leave even starts, leaders should prioritize ensuring they fully understand all the available benefits, such as healthcare enrollment for their new child and their parental leave details. At this time, clear expectations for their return to the office should also be set.
Communication should continue once the employee goes on leave, as well. While managers should never pester employees who are out, Dowling recommends following what she calls the two-thirds rule: “two-thirds of the way through a leave, make sure that there’s an informal touchpoint.”
This informal touchpoint is an opportunity to check in with your employee, let them know you’re excited to have them return, discuss any workplace changes, and address their questions or concerns. Dowling says it’s also a time “to extend an offer to that employee to connect with other people who have been through [the] same.”
Encourage Easing Back to Work
Dowling says a best practice is to shorten an employee’s first week back. “If somebody starts back from parental leave on a Monday, they face a long, hard slog of a whole week and a lot of self-doubt and questioning and exhaustion,” says Dowling. “[If] they come back on a Thursday or even a Friday, they feel a sense of mastery, they re-engage with work in a way that’s not too stressful or onerous.”
Some companies even offer a phased return so that work doesn’t ramp up to its full capacity all at once. At professional services firm PwC, for example, returning parents can work 60% of their 40-hour workweek for the first four weeks. Qualtrics, a tech firm that offers an experience management platform, provides a similar option, allowing new parents to work 50% of their 40-hour workweek for the first four weeks back.
Boost Your Childcare Benefits
At its headquarters in Provo, Utah, Qualtrics has an on-site daycare facility for children from 3 months to 5 years old, available to employees at reduced rates, which enables a smooth transition for birthing parents after their 12-week paid parental leave. It’s particularly convenient for nursing mothers who “can walk to feed their baby and then come back to work and structure their day accordingly,” says Julia Anas, chief people officer at Qualtrics. The company also provides on-site breast milk storage and covers costs for nursing mothers traveling for business to ship breast milk home.
Bright Horizons is a provider that partners with employers to establish on-site childcare facilities, which Krishnan admits offers the easiest transition back to the office. But there are other options for employers who want to enhance the support they offer. Whereas a typical employee benefits plan might provide 10 to 20 days of backup support, for instance, Krishnan says employers can increase this amount to 50 or 100 days for those just returning from parental leave.
Cultivate a Supportive Community at Work
Even before a parent returns from leave, it’s important to be “a matchmaker,” says Dowling, “making sure that employees get to connect and know who to talk to about concerns, challenges, questions, just for moral support.”
At many of the organizations Dowling has worked with, she says employees often don’t know who has been through something similar — they might be new to the company or just unaware of others in similar situations, such as single parents.
One-to-one mentorship programs can provide intimate spaces for honest conversations about work and parenting. PwC offers a program called Mentoring Moms, which chief people officer Yolanda Seals-Coffield says “connects new mothers or mothers-to-be with other PwC moms who have been through the experience themselves.”
Another avenue for support is through a parenting ERG. Group discussions offer a way for parents to learn from one another and empathize. “In order for your effort to gain momentum and be robust, it needs to feel inclusive,” says Dowling. “It really has to serve all parents.”
But she notes that ERGs fizzle when they lack an established purpose such as regular talking points or events. It’s best to be clear on who owns the initiative and create a game plan for the next six to 12 months.
For more casual conversations, you might establish a parenting Slack channel, either separately or in conjunction with your ERG. This is especially beneficial for distributed team members looking to connect with other parents.
Anas says she is a part of a Slack channel for working moms at Qualtrics. During a “What’s Working Wednesday” segment, members share parenting hacks and tips, best practices, and ideas. Since members are parents of children of all ages, she notes the group supports the whole parenting journey.
Whatever approach you take, Dowling explains the importance of providing training for mentors and group leads so they’re familiar with the family-related benefits that new parents might ask about. They should also understand how to navigate tricky questions or concerns and where to direct someone for particular resources or assistance.
Communication can’t be understated for any type of parental benefit or support program. You should discuss the available options with your team often. “If other people don’t know about it, they can’t benefit,” says Dowling. “It does your organization no good.”
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Navigating Return-to-the-Office Expectations for Working Parents
Leaders need to have clear discussions about their post-pandemic return-to-the-office policy, including how it applies to people coming back from parental leave. “A lot of that policy is ill-defined, even in pretty sophisticated or large organizations,” Dowling says. “Figure out a set of guidelines that pertain specifically to people who are making this particular pivot.”
One option to consider is whether you’re willing to offer a period of extra flexibility to work remotely for new parents returning from leave. Also think about whether that flexibility should extend until the child is old enough to be vaccinated, and whether you can offer additional backup care days for new parents on daycare wait lists.
At Qualtrics, employees recently returned to working in the office four days a week. When defining this policy, Anas and her team received feedback through focus groups and pulse surveys, finding that flexibility was a top priority among employees.
With that in mind, her team documented what flexibility means, including factors such as coming in late or leaving early for school drop-offs. “It doesn’t change that I’m here four days a week, but it’s flexible,” says Anas. “What everybody needs is going to look different.”
Once the company defined its parameters on flexibility, they conducted a training session to walk managers through the policy and ensure they understand how to best support their employees.
What Do Your Working Parents Need?
Any added parental benefit or support program that alleviates some of the burdens on your employees is likely to be appreciated, but don’t act on a whim and add too much at once. “You can’t do everything,” Anas says. “So what are the tradeoffs? What are the things that will make the most meaningful impact?”
In addition to conducting focus groups and surveys to gain insights into the benefits your working parents need, consider doing a retention analysis to better understand the reasons parents left the company and what they would’ve needed to stay. From there, you can determine which areas of support to prioritize. You also need to be willing to adjust when necessary.
“We’re continuing to ebb and flow and build [our benefits] based on feedback that we get, but also based on what we see in how employees’ needs are changing,” Anas explains.
However you decide to support new parents in your workforce, be sure to take the time to understand what they need and find ways to provide the right programs. You’ll enable them to contribute more meaningfully to their work, while increasing retention and positioning your company as an employer of choice.