Welcoming a baby is a life-changing event and can be one of the most stressful phases in one’s life. Most families have two working parents and this can be tough not just on the parents, but on the newborn as well. At Azavea, we offer all employees 12 weeks of 100% paid birth parent leave, 6 weeks of 100% paid non-birth parent leave, with the option to take additional unpaid parent leave of up to 16 weeks. However, paid leave policies are just the beginning of creating a supportive work environment for new parents. Here are 5 ways companies can make the transition back to work smoother for parents in the workforce.
1. Create a plan
Start preparing for your employee’s leave as soon as they make the announcement. It is never too early to start this process! Discuss the leave options available to your employees and suggest ways for them to effectively use their time-off. Talk about upcoming project deadlines, and make adjustments to those that are scheduled during their absence. Aim to reduce their workload a week before they are scheduled to step out. Similarly, chalk out a flexible schedule for the first few weeks following their return to work. Communicate this new agenda with other team members, especially to those who will be directly affected by it.
Planning ahead will prepare your employee and team for the new schedule and workload changes; this prevents employees from feeling overwhelmed before they set out on their leave. At the same time, it’s important to remind your employee and team that plans change! Emphasize good communication, documentation, and cross-training so that your team can accommodate unanticipated events like an early delivery or extended leave.
2.Offer a flexible schedule
Conversations about flexibility tend to overlook parental needs before the baby arrives. Some birth parents may prefer to work from home in the weeks before they give birth, and some for most part of their pregnancy. Other parents, who are adopting, need to leave early to handle appointments and paperwork for the adoption.
New parents are sleep deprived and need time to regain their strength and productivity. Giving them the opportunity to be flexible with their schedule can help them find an optimum set of hours that enables them to be most productive. Some parents are more effective either working at home, or at night, or over weekends or in the office. Be open to an unconventional work timetable, and encourage employees to try different schedules as their needs change.
Beyond workweek flexibility, consider more drastic leave policy or employment status options that empower employees to build a plan that fits their family’s needs. Azavea’s parental leave policy permits parents to use their leave in any structure during the first year after welcoming their child. If a baby needs to be hospitalized, parents can elect to delay their leave until their child is ready to come home, for example. Other parents have chosen to combine parental leave and part-time hours for a gradual return to work.
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At Azavea we also offer our full-time employees the option to switch to 80% time. What is 80% time? It’s an alternative schedule that allows our employees to work 32 hours instead of 40. While compensation and time-off is also reduced, they are able to retain all of their benefits. Employees who adopt this schedule can decide if they want to either work a 4 day week or reduced hours each day. Some employees choose 80% time on a temporary basis, and others have made the switch permanent. This is a great option for our working parents to take advantage off, and use to ease their way back into work. Another alternative is part-time work. This is helpful for new parents who need more time adjusting to their new life.
3. Communicate new changes or create a checklist of administrative tasks
The weeks before and after parental leave can be chaotic. Help your employees stay on track by creating a checklist of essential tasks that need to be accomplished before they set out. We encourage our employees to take the following steps to ensure that they are not unnecessarily disturbed during their time off:
- Mark parental leave dates on a calendar that is accessible by everyone on the team or company.
- Update the calendar with the new back-to-work schedule that will include any part-time, reduced time or work from home hours.
- Set status on slack (internal messaging platform) to either “Inactive” or “Away on Parental Leave”
- Update automatic email response message during and after parental leave. (When employees return from their leave we suggest that they don’t eliminate their response message, but rather update it to “Slow to Respond’ for a couple of weeks. This gives them time to reply to incoming emails while sorting through the ones they accumulated over the past 16 weeks.)
- Assign a single person to be a gatekeeper for critical questions. (The gatekeeper will determine if an issue rises to a level worthy enough to contact the employee out on leave.)
4. Create a transition back period
After being away on leave, employees need time to catch up and reorient to their job. Reading emails, getting familiar with new processes and policies, and even just learning the names of employees who started while they were away takes time. Make a back-to-work plan that includes ample time to sort through emails, training for changes your employee may have missed, weekly check-ins, and gradual assumption of responsibilities. Make sure to set clear expectations with your employee and team about this plan to reduce stress.
Some employees require a temporary worker to fill in their position while out on parental leave. To avoid rushing through this process, coordinate with HR to start the search early, and plan to have the new temporary worker trained, and ready, two weeks before the employee is scheduled to head out. Aim to have the temp stay on for 4-6 weeks after the employee returns to work. This overlap prevents the employee and your team from feeling too swamped and gives them time to get back into the groove of things.
5. Create a comfortable lactation room
Breastfeeding parents require a comfortable, safe and clean room to pump. It is important that the room is accessible and equipped with the essentials. We recommend a dedicated refrigerator for breast milk; a reclining chair made of vinyl, leather, or some other easily cleaned material; a foot stool; a side table; desk; desk chair; mirror; trash can, soap dispenser, paper towels, and sanitizer. Azavea’s lactation room has a sink, and we recommend including this feature if you are planning an office expansion or retrofitting your space, but this is not immediately possible for everyone.
Some employees prefer to work while they pump and therefore it is important to have more than one functioning electrical outlet. Our room also has a lock that indicates if the room is vacant or occupied. If more than one employee needs to use the lactation room, ensure the room is part of your calendar system so that employees can reserve the room ahead of time to avoid double booking it.
These are five suggestions to make new parents feel less stressed when they return to work after a huge milestone. At Azavea, we continue to look for more ways to make this transition easier on them. We can’t ignore that these workers have a new set of responsibilities added to their plate. If the workplace supports their new lifestyle, it reduces the likelihood of them seeking opportunities elsewhere. Having a good parental leave policy is a great way to retain top talent. After all, working parents run on a tight schedule and are forced to be more efficient during work hours. They are valuable assets to the company and our community.