Last Monday, I woke up to my alarm clock for the first time in twelve weeks.
I nursed my tiny baby, so little her head still fits in my palm, and I got her, my older daughter, and myself ready for the day. I packed lunch for my eldest, bottles for my youngest, and dropped them off at their meticulously vetted, socially-distanced care facilities. I nursed and snuggled my daughter in the car before reluctantly handing her over.
And then, I came home, took a deep breath, and returned to the working world.
For most women, coming back to work after maternity leave is…complicated. I absolutely love my job, my boss, and my colleagues, and I was more than eager to return to the professional world. But the prospect of being away from my brand-new baby — who’s been either inside of me or right next to me for the past year — for the majority of her waking hours was, and is, heart-wrenching. She’s growing quick, and I’m going to miss key moments of her life.
Even for an engaged and highly satisfied employee like me, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Add to this the physical considerations (pumping breastmilk every two to three hours, sleep deprivation, navigating childcare arrangements and doctor’s appointments, etc.) and it’s no surprise that the transition is difficult for most moms.
It’s a turbulent time for their companies, too, as they struggle to support and retain their people.
In 2011, a Census Bureau report revealed that 20% of working first-time mothers quit their jobs after having babies. (I couldn’t find more recent credible statistics.) For “highly qualified women” (read: graduate degrees, executives, etc.), that number jumps to 43%. Worryingly, mothers later seeking to re-enter are in for an uphill climb — as Sheryl Sandberg cites in Lean In, “only 74% of professional women will rejoin the workforce in any capacity, and [just] 40% will return to full time jobs.”
Couple this with the current mass exodus of working mothers due to COVID-19, and our nation is facing an alarming reversal of decades of progress. The share of working women is currently the lowest it’s been in 35 years.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as many organizations are devising creative ways to support their people in the age of pandemic parenting (such as UKG’s sanity-saving summer camp and kids club), there are clear ways we can support new moms as they return to work after maternity leave. Despite their unique challenges, working mothers make up a significant part of the workforce. Learning to support and retain them is good for them, good for business, and good for the economy.
But let’s be clear: It’s not just about maternity leave.
Paid Maternity Leave: Crucial. Not Enough.
You’re probably aware that the U.S. is one of only four countries in the world that doesn’t offer national paid maternity leave (and the only developed country with that distinction). Fifty nations provide six months of paid leave or more. It’s pretty shocking, really — but I digress.
Fortunately, more and more private companies are recognizing the importance of paid family leave and stepping in where public policy fails. As of 2018, more than one in three U.S. employers offered paid maternity leave, and many even extend time-off benefits to fathers, who’ve traditionally been neglected in the parental leave conversation.
As someone who’s experienced two maternity leaves, both paid and unpaid, I can attest that paid is much better. The ability to take twelve full weeks to bond with my daughter, establish my milk supply, and recover from birth was a godsend, especially as we didn’t have to worry about how my absence would stress our finances. When I had my oldest daughter, I was working at a different company. Taking twelve weeks of unpaid leave wasn’t financially viable for our family at the time, so I began working part-time within two weeks and full-time by six. This time around, taking the full twelve weeks of leave helped me become much more rested, motivated, and excited to return than I was six years ago.
By offering paid parental leave, employers signal that they care. It’s a coveted benefit that certainly helps both attract and retain talent. And still, twelve weeks is just three months; a blip of time in your employees’ (hopefully) long trajectory with your company. Trust me: That time passes quickly, and it’s mostly a blur of sleepless nights and diaper changes.
They’ll be parents forever, with changing circumstances and needs over time. Offering a competitive parental leave package is an important piece, but it’s not the panacea. There’s more to the puzzle.
We’ve all heard it before: Onboarding matters. We understand the importance of welcoming new hires, ensuring their technology needs are met, and easing into their responsibilities with plenty of communication and feedback. We know that a well-designed onboarding process contributes to long-term employee success, engagement, and satisfaction.
But what about welcoming back new parents?
In a survey of 1,000 working mothers who had recently returned from maternity leave, 90% said their organizations offered no returner support, and more than a third felt so unsupported that they wanted to quit. What’s shocking about this survey is that it was conducted in the U.K., with respondents who received nearly an entire year of paid maternity leave.
Clearly, organizations need more than just generous paid time off.
Fortunately, implementing “momboarding” processes can help mitigate the stress new parents face. It’s a win-win for everyone, simultaneously increasing retention, engagement, and loyalty.
Here are a few simple best practices to consider as you evaluate your current return-to-work and momboarding procedures. And the best part? They’re all free — they just require a little time and consideration.
Great momboarding begins before offboarding. During the last few months of their pregnancies, managers and employees should define who will be taking over which projects, have process documents in place to ensure seamless transitions, and discuss return-to-work plans (with the understanding that these plans may change once baby is born). As part of these conversations, managers should ask whether employees would like to be kept abreast of important organizational changes, and if so, the desired method of communication. This can help employees feel connected and remembered in their absence, without any pressure to check in (or check emails).
“Welcome Back” Party
Okay, an actual party isn’t necessary, but taking the time to welcome people back is a nice gesture. You don’t want to overwhelm them on their first day back, but just as it’s a best practice to introduce new hires to their teammates, you should give returning employees the opportunity to catch up with their colleagues in a friendly, stress-free way. A quick touch-base between employee and manager should also set the stage for open communication about any new concerns or considerations, such as ensuring mothers have time to pump or evaluating potential scheduling changes.
If there’s a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s the increased trust and willingness to let people work when and how they work best, where applicable. Many managers and companies who were firmly opposed to working from home saw record productivity with newly remote teams. The challenges of working strict 9-to-5’s without schools or daycare centers helped managers realize that just because work doesn’t get done during typical hours, doesn’t mean it doesn’t get done.
Or, as UKG’s CEO Aron Ain says, “I don’t care when or where you do it — I just care that you do it.”
As a nation, it seems we’ve finally learned that flexibility at work is both acceptable and desirable, and I’d argue this sentiment is especially true when it comes to new mothers and momboarding. Babies get sick…a lot. Pumping is time-consuming, exhausting, and absolutely necessary for breastfeeding mothers (not to mention a legally protected right). There are doctor’s appointments, school activities, daycare closing times to consider. Staying flexible and working with employees to help determine which expectations, if any, need to change fosters mutual trust, strengthens the employee-employer relationship, and hedges against losing top talent.
Create a “While-You-Were-Gone” Resource
The world of work moves fast, and things change quickly. (In my case, I came back to a brand-new company name!) It can be overwhelming to return to a “new normal” that everyone else is already accustomed to, so it’s helpful to explain new workplace developments, such as the latest projects, technologies, or team structures. Managers should also take note of any important company-wide communications or policy changes, so employees aren’t blindsided upon their return.
Just as feedback shouldn’t be limited to annual reviews, it’s importantly to regularly communicate during the return-to-work process (and forever, really). Think about how much energy goes into welcoming and fully acclimating new hires. Building trust and complicity takes time, and while managers (hopefully) have strong existing relationships with returning employees, the fact remains that the employees’ lives have changed dramatically since they left. They are, in many ways, new people, with new needs.