Six opportunities to make new parents feel welcome back at work

Employers can help new parents feel comfortable and excited to return to work, including celebrating life events and offering flexible policies.
By: | May 15, 2023

When Kelly Sizemore approached her manager with a proposal for the post-maternity leave return to work, she was apprehensive; no one in a regional role at engineering consulting organisation Kimley-Horn like she had at that time had gone out on leave in recent years, and they certainly had not asked to return on a part-time schedule, like she was planning to.

At first, the reaction was not great, she acknowledged it during a session at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference (HBLC), which took place from 3-5 May 2023 in Las Vegas. But after a somewhat tense meeting, her supervisor called her before she even reached the parking lot and told her, “We’d rather have some of you than none of you. We’ll figure out how to make it work.”

That has since become a mantra for the organisation’s work around parental leave, Sizemore said. Shortly after her return, Kimley-Horn decided to devote its annual strategy meeting to an ongoing challenge: recruiting, developing, and retaining women. Ultimately, the organisation, which employs 7,000 people, rolled out a sea of new parental benefits, including “Mom Buddies” and Teams and Facebook groups to connect expectant parents with employees who have been through similar experiences; mother’s rooms in every office; and breastmilk shipping services for travelling, breastfeeding moms.

Parents can also participate in Mindful Return, a four-week training programme for employees across industries and organisations returning from leave, which Sizemore said was “very impactful” on her post-baby work experience.

Messaging matters for new working parents

Mindful Return conducted a study on the first 1,000 participants in its programme, finding that, over a five-year period after their return from parental leave, 85% were still with the same employer and 93% were still in the workforce.

“We know it makes a difference when employers say to their employees, ‘Hey, we want you to come back, and we’re going to give you the tools to help you do that,’” said Lori Mihalich-Levin, Founder of Mindful Return and Author of Back to Work After Baby, at the HBLC session.

Proactively offering support to returning parents is something more employers need to consider doing, she says, noting that 40% of American households include children under 18 and, in 2021, 62% of two-parent households had both parents working. However, only 64% of working women return to work after having a baby, meaning a full one-third of the female workforce is consistently leaving.

Mihalich-Levin said most new moms and dads fit into one of three buckets: One group would not come back to work after baby no matter what the employer does, one will absolutely return no matter what level of support the organisation offers, and the third—“the huge middle,”—she said, just is not sure, with most waiting to see what kind of support they will receive upon their return.

And that presents a prime opportunity for employers, particularly in today’s tight labour market.

“There are probably 748 things employers could be doing for working parents,” Mihalich-Levin said. “But my philosophy is that you have to start small and you have to start somewhere. Take baby steps towards achieving support for working parents.”

READ: How to best support your people in the new world of work

Ways to help working parents

Mihalich-Levin and Sizemore offered six ways employers can make new parents not only feel comfortable, but excited, to return to work:

Celebrate your employees’ life events
Leaders and managers need to make employees feel like their big life event is a celebration, not a chore of the organisation. “A positive mindset is where it all begins,” Sizemore said.

That can include emailed announcements to the organisation about the birth or adoption of a baby, updates on an organisation’s intranet, and gifts—think, branded onesies, toys, and meal-delivery services.

Importantly, leaders need to model this celebratory mindset shift—do not just endorse meetings for new parent employees, show up to them—and managers need to be trained about how to make employees feel like the organisation is behind them. For instance, instead of a supervisor questioning an expectant father about if he is going to take leave, a better way to phrase it would be “How much time are you going to take off?” Sizemore said.

Consider your policies
HR should benchmark its parental policies not only against competitors but across industries, Sizemore said. Consider upping the ante to offer full parental leave—gender-neutral, with the same leave offered to all new parents—flexible work, and ramp-down and ramp-up policies that allow parents to gradually prepare for leave and return from it with reduced schedules. While these may look different depending on the organisation, employees ramping down and up should still have access to full-time pay, the speakers agreed. HR can be even more proactive and consider bringing new parents back for their first day mid-week—giving the family the opportunity to get adjusted to having the new baby in daycare, if that is the case.

Focus on communication
From conversation guides to help employees and managers talk more openly about new parent challenges to keeping the organisation’s intranet refreshed with messaging about how the organisation is helping employees meet those needs, communication needs to be top-most in efforts to retain new parents. Information about parental policies and programmes, along with ways to build community with other working parents, should be included in open enrolment and benefits communications; such messaging can also serve as an effective recruitment tool, Sizemore said.

Update your programmes
Among the most sought-after parental programmes—especially given that 20% of all childcare positions disappeared once the pandemic started, Mihalich-Levin noted—is childcare assistance, including subsidised and backup programmes. Other areas where employers can innovate are coaching, using either internal or external resources, and enrolment in programmes like Mindful Return. Lactation support is another area seeing growth, as employers move to comply with the newly enacted Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) Act, a law which compelled employers to provide breastfeeding accommodations; beyond the pumping rooms most employers now will be required to provide, some organisations are paying for breastmilk shipping and storage and providing on-site refrigeration services.

Build community and connection
What many new parents are craving, Mihalich-Levin said, is simply knowing they are not alone, which is why mentoring programmes, parental leave support groups and employee resource groups can be effective tools in easing the transition back to work.

While working at a law firm, Mihalich-Levin served as a “buddy” for new parents returning to work and was struck by how impactful it was for them to meet others who had been through the ups and down of welcoming a new baby.

“Hearing other people reflect back and say, ‘Oh no, this is a human experience; it’s not just you’ can be really normalising,” she said.

Leveraging data collection
It is difficult to improve the offerings for your working parents without understanding what really matters to them, Mihalich-Levin said. For instance, ensure you know the number of weeks of leave taken by both new moms and dads, across functions and job levels, so you can pinpoint any areas where benefits are going under-utilised. Utilisation should also be looked at as it ties to employee engagement, retention, and promotion.

Employers should remember, Mihalich-Levin said, that having a baby is a life-changing event for employees, and it is important to empower them to take that journey at their own pace.

“When you put supports in place and when employees feel they can navigate through the transition—which is a yearlong one, not a one-week event, you’ll be able to return them at a much higher rate.”

Jen Colletta is Managing Editor at HRE. This article was first published on Human Resource Executive.