Rethinking Leave and the New Parent Experience

During my first year as a US employee of a Canadian company, I learned that one of my new Canadian colleagues was not only expecting her first child, but also preparing for a yearlong maternity leave. Yes, you read that correctly. A year. Twelve whole months of government-sponsored job protection and subsidized family leave, to be divvied up between parents at their own choosing.

As a point of comparison, I – an employee of a company with less than 50 American employees – am eligible for absolutely zero days of family leave, paid or not. Zero. In real terms: if I had a baby tomorrow, my employer would be legally entitled to demand I squeeze the labor into my lunch break and be back at my desk for my 1 o’clock client call.

None of this is news. For decades, international studies and publications have reported on America’s lack of mandated paid leave with disbelief and dismay. Unfortunately, the financial, operational, and political considerations surrounding this issue are complex, to say the least. Alas, I’ll leave the debate on how – and if – the government should solve this crisis to those running for office.

Instead, I’ll ask how we, in the design thinking world, might tackle this challenge. What if instead of a policy issue, we think of this as a CX issue (or in this case, an EX – employee experience – issue). How can private corporations rethink the experience of their employees – in particular, the overwhelmed, under-rested, and mentally drained variety of employee otherwise known as “the new parent” – to deliver greater value and yield better returns? is it really just a matter of providing more weeks off? To find out, I turned to those best equipped to empathize with the plight of the new parent: new parents themselves.

I reached out to a handful of freshly minted and soon-to-be moms and dads across industries and geographies, and asked them what their employers did or offered to make their lives easier, more manageable, more productive, and more enjoyable while they were expecting and welcoming their new babies. Perhaps more importantly, I asked what they wished their employers had offered but didn’t. “In an ideal world where you run the company and you call the shots,” I inquired, “what policies, practices, or programs would you implement?” I told them to dream big.

Respondents – especially expecting parents – did detail how many fully-, partially-, and un-paid weeks their companies offered. But here’s where it got really interesting: for new parents, paid leave was just the beginning. It was considered table stakes, sure; but after a certain point, no one dreamed of more time off. Perhaps because the national standard is set so low, most of these parents were grateful for any paid time and acknowledged the burden their absence placed on their employer, both financially and operationally (especially in small businesses or teams without built-in redundancy).

For new parents, the conversation focused more on what happens after maternity or paternity leave ends and the rest of their parental lives begin.

The few weeks of family leave – much or all of which passed by in a hazy, sleep-deprived blur – is a blip in the big scheme of their new child’s life. Instead, their “dream big” policies, practices, and programs focused on a crucial and difficult period where employee experience (re)design has massive potential – a period i’ll call “The New Parent Transition.”

The New Parent Transition is all about providing an “on ramp” back into the workforce, a way to ease the transition from being home all day to being at work all day. new parents wanted their employers to acknowledge that going back to “life as usual” after a baby is born isn’t just difficult, it’s impossible. To start, there are new biological needs; sure, that new mom can be back in the office from 9 to 6, but she’s going to need time and space to pump breast milk. There are new logistical challenges too, like when the new dad needs to be on call to retrieve his sick child from daycare in the middle of the day or to work from home when the nanny has her own family emergency. And then there’s the unseen but powerful emotional drain – the parents who may be physically at the table but are mentally wondering what milestones they’re missing at home.

When envisioning these transition period solutions, some parents mentioned the things we might expect from companies with more “innovative” cultures – pumping rooms at the office with high-speed WiFi and netflix, courier-service milk delivery to their home, company-paid sleep trainers to get babies (and their parents) sleeping through the night sooner. But the vast majority of new parents I spoke with kept things pretty simple, focusing on just three wish list provisions.

The ability to be home when I want to be.

“Going from full-time home to full-time office is hard on the whole family.” – New Mom

“I’ve seen several businesses – both small and large – provide new parents with
the option to transition to contract positions, allowing them the flexibility to work on their time and not sacrifice their salaries. Vodaphone even offers full-time pay for 30-hour work weeks for the first six months after you come back from paid leave.” – New Mom

Many new parents aren’t ready to simply flip the switch back to full-time employee. They want to be home – at least some of the time – spending important bonding moments with their new child, but they’re also ready to reengage with work, interact with grown-ups again, and keep those much-needed paychecks coming. They want, and need, to come back, but not necessarily in a full-time or always physically present capacity.

The ability to be home when I need to be.

“Babies get sick ALL THE TIME, especially in the winter and in daycare. New parents need the flexibility to be able to leave work and handle that.” – New Mom

“My boss lets me work from home on Fridays, when my wife goes into the office and we have no other childcare coverage. The ability to work remotely is HUGE.” – New Dad

Stuff happens. Kids get sick. nannies get sick. Your wife suddenly needs to take a three-day business trip. Not to mention the break-the-bank costs of full-time childcare. Sometimes, mom or dad simply need to be on-call to be home for part or all of the day.

Affordable and reliable childcare when I’m not around to provide it myself.

“Childcare that’s either subsidized or paid with pre-tax dollars – especially if on-site, so parents can see their kids on breaks – would make this difficult transition a little more manageable and seamless.” – New Mom

New parents recognize that, at least some of the time, someone else is likely going to be responsible for keeping their child happy and alive. Many are lucky to have family and friends around to provide extra support, but for those reliant on paid childcare, the costs – both financial and emotional – can be overwhelming. Easing this burden with subsidized childcare or by allowing parents to see their children midday can go a long way.

One can envision many different ways to provide these three high-level benefits, because what’s right for one company’s employees, financial and operational structures, or culture may not be right for another’s. But at the end of the day, these new parents require flexibility, however their employer chooses to deliver it.

As we approach this challenge from the lens of EX design, we must dig deep to understand both the costs of these new benefits and their true, experienced value to employees; only then can we begin to really explore the optimal distribution of resources. We may find, for example, that employees would happily take shorter paid leave in exchange for the ability to work from home when they return, or that employee productivity skyrockets when provided the peace-of-mind of reliable and affordable childcare. If we reframe the problem to one of maximizing benefit, not maximizing weeks, we may find that the economics of new parent policies aren’t a zero-sum game, after all.

Regardless of if or how our government intervenes to solve for paid leave, employers have the ability to decide if and how they help their employees navigate the scary and stressful experience of the new working parent – and, ultimately, to determine if and how they retain not only these new parent employees but also their experience, knowledge, and loyalty.

the author

Michelle Jacobs

Michelle Jacobs is co-head of IC New York and a senior innovation strategist at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.