While plenty of attention has been given to the need for and length of parental leave, there’s another transitional stage after having or adopting a baby that requires arguably as much focus: the return to work.
Often, parents — especially birthing parents — make the decision not to return at all. A February 2020 survey conducted by LinkedIn and Censuswide found that nearly half of moms take an extended break after the birth of their children, with the average time being about two years.
And for those who do return after leave, more than half said they didn’t feel they had a choice in the matter, with finances being the overwhelming driver of the decision. Three career-related fears follow behind: the fear of losing their job, the fear of not being able to move up and the fear of becoming irrelevant in their careers.
The results point to an ambivalence among returning parents, particularly mothers — many of whom are weighing physical recovery, adjustment to a new role, sleep deprivation and potentially guilt at pivoting attention from their child with a desire to get back to normal and resume professional activities. This phase can be crucial for employers to demonstrate the value of their culture and, if they approach it right, potentially retain valuable employees for years to come.
Embrace the parent’s new identity
The shift in workplace mindset toward new parents should come long before the return to work, Gina Nebesar, chief product officer of family benefits platform Ovia Health, told HR Dive. In fact, according to data collected by Ovia, many people make the decision whether or not to return after parental leave while in the early stages of pregnancy.
Thinking about the future, pregnant employees are “looking around at their organizations and trying to find examples, specifically of leaders, that have the type of flexibility and work-life harmony that they’re looking for from that postpartum experience,” Nebesar said. If they hadn’t been paying attention before, pregnant employees become particularly attuned to how parents are treated in the workplace.
How management reacts to the news of the pregnancy can be the first signal. “We do a lot around cultural training and manager training,” Nebesar said of Ovia’s approach both to its own workplace and the employers it partners with. Ovia’s training gives managers the tools to connect employees with parenthood resources and support. It also covers the sensitivity training managers sometimes lack, “so that when someone says ‘I'm pregnant,’ the first word out of your mouth is ‘Congratulations,’” Nebesar said.
Employers need to understand or remember that “it’s a whole new identity overnight, becoming a parent,” Nebesar said — one that can become even more challenging when employees don’t see the systems or norms in place to support them, or even hear an acknowledgment of their major life transition from colleagues and managers.
Melissa Wirt, CEO and founder of Latched Mama and a mother of six children, emphasized the same point. “You are not the same person on the other side of [pregnancy and childbirth], whether it's baby number one or baby number six … and it teaches you immeasurable things,” she said. “You completely change as a human being, as a mother, but you also change as an employee.”
The boot camp experience of caring for a newborn gives birthing and nonbirthing parents alike a new and different skill set — one that employers can benefit from, if they can recognize it. From project management skills that come from remembering feeding schedules and tracking a child’s progress to deepened emotional skills developed through practicing patience, parents bring a lot to the table.
“I think we need to highlight the skills and the strengths that [new parents] have developed while also paying attention to the fact that they are a new person — a changed person,” Wirt said.
Use flexibility to its full advantage
For HR and managers, an employee’s post-leave return to work is the perfect time to make good on a company’s promises about flexibility and culture. Discussions about what pregnancy, parental leave and the return to work may look like are a good place to start, Nebesar said.
Upon returning, employees who work from home may have their baby nearby some or all of the time, making breastfeeding a frequent part of the workday. Many of those who return to an office will choose to pump, requiring a clean, private space they will need to use several times per day.
Despite the legal mandate, breastfeeding discrimination is reportedly common, particularly in male-dominated industries. Some participants in a Center for Worklife Law investigation described degrading experiences, like pumping in bathroom stalls or leaking through their shirts because they were not allowed the time or space to express milk.
Providing a clean, private space is a start. But employers can go above and beyond the law, ensuring a pumping room is comfortably and even lavishly outfitted, so employees feel encouraged to use it. Even small touches can make a difference; Google, for example, reportedly has a whiteboard so employees can leave notes for each other or pin up pictures of their babies, while The Intercept has artwork on the walls, suggesting the space is meant to be enjoyed. Some workplaces provide magazines or televisions.
In addition to providing space — or allowing camera-off meetings for breastfeeding parents working from home — encouraging employees to block time on their calendars to show that pumping is an important and committed time can reinforce that employers respect new parents, Nebesar said. She began using time blocks to show “that this is something that is celebrated — something that you can’t interrupt.”
Flexible hours are another way to help returning employees adjust. Some companies allow a gradual integration back into the workplace; Zillow, for example, allows returning workers to work 60% to 80% of their full-time hours for the first couple weeks back.
Flexibility is important not just for office workers, but for front-line workers as well, Nebesar emphasized. Employers can make sure hourly workers have the flexibility to schedule medical appointments, help them set their schedule in advance, and can provide other options, even if workers have set hours that must be worked on site.
In addition to flexibility, Ovia leans hard into other benefits for working parents, providing a blueprint for other employers. Nebesar suggested financial support to help parents afford child care or “baby bonuses,” stipends that help parents meet costs during parental leave. Employers can also contract a variety of helpful experts: lactation consultants, mental health coaches, baby sleep counselors and more.
As with all benefits, employees are more likely to use them if they see leaders taking advantage of them as well. If a workplace has paternity leave but no male leaders appear to take it, junior employees may feel wary of using it as well. HR can help by encouraging use of leave from the top-down, and by pointing to the benefits of doing so.
Consider bringing babies on site
While employers can take great strides to create a culture that embraces parents and provides useful resources, there’s another outside factor that may play a major role in parents’ decision-making: a massive child care shortage.
Low wages and stifling regulations have driven many child care providers into other careers, a New York Times report from October found. There are now 100,000 fewer child-care workers than there were before the pandemic, leaving many parents no choice but to take on full caregiving duties.
While a bigger lift, employers can help out here too. Wirt, whose startup of around 50 employees is located just outside Richmond, Virginia, has a bring-your-baby-to-work policy, in which employees can haul their infants to the office with them. “Most kids end up staying here for about 18 months,” she said.
The decision started with Wirt’s own experience. “It was the only way that I could function as the brand started to grow,” she said. At the time, she had a 6-month-old and an 18-month-old. “As I started to expand the brand and expand our staffing, I realized that, you know, it was kind of unfair for me to have my own kids here with me without allowing other moms that same opportunity.”
On any given day, Wirt said, there are between one and 11 kids in the Latched Mama office — napping on or beside their parents or, for the more mobile toddlers, playing in a play area with a parent supervising and working nearby. The policy may sound unconventional, but Latched Mama isn’t alone in inviting kids into the office.
For those who look at her skeptically, Wirt said, “I sometimes just want to look at them and be like, you know, ‘Look at our balance sheet. Look what we've accomplished.’ There are so many people who have failed at the beginning of business, and we haven’t. I will say until I’m blue in the face that it’s because I saw value in a group of people that society overlooked so much.”
Some companies have also explored or adopted on-site child care, including Patagonia and Goldman Sachs. Unlike some other benefits or strategies employers might provide to ease the transition for new parents, however, on-site child care often comes with heavy regulatory red tape and insurance costs — making a longer leave or access to a lactation consultant a much easier lift.
In 2021, Colorado passed a law intended to reduce barriers to workplace child care. The act, SB21-236, appropriated more than $8 million for an employer-based child care facility grant program, in addition to funds for other early child care and education programs. The legislation is beginning to pay off; Steamboat Ski Resort, in Steamboat Springs, is opening a child care center for employees this month, with support from the program.
On-site child care may be at the forefront of the movement to embrace the parent worker, but companies can still take a wide range of steps to ease workers’ transition back to work after parental leave. Above all, it starts with the simple action of understanding what expecting and postpartum parents are going through and asking what they need.
“It’s a beautiful thing when you can embrace an employee as an entire person,” Wirt said. “Not just somebody who shows up from 9 to 5.”