I was a partner in the UK when I first became pregnant. In an attempt to retain more female partners, the firm had just introduced a great new maternity policy—paid time off for six months.
I was delighted. It took away any debate about how long I would take off and whether or not I would return to the company. My plan was to take the six months, bounce back, and continue with my career uninterrupted.
Like many great plans, this one didn’t quite pan out. My baby didn’t sleep too well (do any babies sleep well?), my confidence took a huge knock, and I suspect I suffered from slight postpartum depression. I was excited to return to work, but I felt changed—less assured, a little guilt-ridden, and somewhat nervous about my ability to be a great mother and a great partner.
And even worse, I came back to an unexpected work environment. My clients had been handed to other people while I was on leave and weren’t returned to me when I came back. My boss had moved into a new role and no one was certain who I would now be reporting to.
Far from being too stretched, I dragged myself to work only to find there was little for me to do. Within several months I had convinced myself there was little point trying to continue and took a much lower-level role somewhere else working part-time. Yet another female partner gone.
Mine is just one of many similar stories. And there’s a financial impact to this, too. Companies that can’t retain working parents lose in the cost of recruiting and training new talent, as well as in high-performing and well-skilled employees.
“Replacing people is expensive. This is especially true for specialized, skilled work,” cites author Laura Vanderkam in a recent article on Fast Company. “‘The number that tends to get thrown around is 150% of an individual’s salary,’ says Barbara Wankoff, executive director for diversity and inclusion at KPMG. If a company has gone to the trouble of hiring and training someone, avoiding voluntary turnover boosts the bottom line.”
Managers can make all the difference in how a person performs at work after returning and whether or not they stay. So, what can they do to support those who are returning from maternity leave?
1. Meet With HR Before They Return
Meet with your HR rep to understand company policy for working parents and what resources are available for your returning employee, including practical things like where they can pump. Work out just how flexible you can be with their schedule and workload. Cover any concerns you have over what you can and can’t say and what topics you shouldn’t bring up. Arm yourself with all the information you need to have a sensible, informed, and helpful conversation with them before their return.
2. Be There in Person on Day One
This might just be another day for you, but trust me, it’s a big deal for them. There are plenty of things going through their head during this time, so make sure they feel welcomed and supported. Take them out to lunch and catch them up on what they missed, as well as what to expect in the following days and weeks.
3. Set Up a Transition Timeline Together
Sit down one-on-one and discuss whether they want to jump straight in to their work or ease back in slowly. Outline in a document and talk through any specific goals or learning needs they’ll have over the first 90 days.
And, recognize that there will be highs and lows. Make sure the plan is owned by the individual and has their buy-in. Then, discuss the fact that you’ll revisit this every few weeks to make sure it’s still working for everyone involved. After all, the first year with a child can be full of surprises, and going in with a flexible mindset can make all the difference.
4. Set Up a New Schedule Together
Talk through their hours and whether they’ll need to leave early, come in late, or work from home certain days. And, come up with a plan for how you’ll address childcare emergencies.
Overall, be sensible when it comes to any request for flexibility—the reality is that they’re not just trying to skip out on work for no reason. And it’s not just about the “when and where,” it’s also about “how much.” It’s all too easy to agree to reduced hours and pay without actually reducing the workload or expectations around output.
Finally, be respectful of their schedule. For example, avoid setting up early morning or late afternoon meetings they may not be able to attend. And be mindful about the fact that arranging last-minute childcare is often difficult and sometimes impossible.
5. Share Company and Personal Resources
It’s possible your employee may feel alone in their situation, so find ways to support them by connecting them with company resources or groups—whether it’s a working parent Slack channel or email chain or a specific colleague who’s also a working parent.
Note: This is something you should check in about in your HR conversation to understand what resources your company has as well as the best way to approach this.
6. Talk About Their Long-Term Goals
Don’t assume you have the low-down on what work they can or can’t take on until you’ve asked the question.
Ask for their opinion—where do they see themselves going and how do they want to grow in this role? Their time away may have given them new perspectives on some age-old problems or helped them decide they want to take on new projects. Give them the opportunity to not just do their job but expand their skill set and move up.
Above all, smart managers recognize that the person returning from maternity leave is still the ambitious, career-oriented individual they were before they left.