Even before the pandemic began, media giant Thomson Reuters started what it called a shift toward flexibility after its employees called for more benefits to promote a better work/life balance.
But that focus only intensified after the arrival of COVID-19. Like other companies, Thomson Reuters saw firsthand the challenges its employees were dealing with, as well as the shifts the health emergency caused in how people viewed their priorities—and the company decided to turn to new and enhanced benefits in an effort to address both.
"There were forces at play before the pandemic, but that just exploded during the pandemic with growing levels of stress and mental health issues and the feeling of things being overwhelming," said Mary Alice Vuicic, chief people officer at Thomson Reuters, a global firm with 26,000 employees. "There was this desire for work to fit into life and not the other way around. People were no longer willing to sacrifice their personal life commitments for work."
Thomson Reuters has been rolling out a series of benefits over the past year: A policy that allows employees to work remotely from anywhere for eight weeks; a sabbatical program that allows employees to take up to six months of unpaid leave every five years; flex vacation time; a 10-day paid caregiving leave policy; and enhanced bereavement leave, which provides 10 paid days off following the loss of an immediate family member.
Now comes its latest benefits addition: a 16-week paid parental leave program.
Introduced this month, the global benefit grants eligible employees who are welcoming a new child into their family through birth or adoption at least 16 weeks of time off, regardless of the employee's gender, sexual orientation or marital status. The amount varies by country: In the U.S., all new parents will be entitled to an additional four weeks paid leave. Non-birthing parents in the U.K., India and Argentina will receive an extra 14 weeks paid leave, while Canadian non-birthing parents will receive and increase of 15 weeks.
"Employees told us they wanted to be more involved when welcoming a new child," Vuicic said. "And both parents play such a critical role in raising a child. So, based on the feedback from our people and looking at ensuring that our policy was as inclusive as possible, that led the redesign that ties to our values and our commitment to diversity and inclusion."
An inclusive policy for all new parents is part of a larger benefits trend happening among private employers. Rather than just offering time off to a primary or birthing parent, firms increasingly are implementing broader policies that allot the same amount of time to all new parents, said Maria Trapenasso, SHRM-SCP, human capital solutions national practice leader at NFP, a New York City-based benefits consultant.
"Whether it's a birth parent, an adoptive parent, a foster parent, regardless of gender, regardless of their role in that child's life, you should be offering them the same thing across the board," Trapenasso said.
Companies including consumer health care company Haleon and Meta—Facebook and Instagram's parent company—offer the same amount of time off for all new parents. While many employers still break down parental leave into maternal and paternal leave, about 33 percent of employers offered broad parental leave in 2022, according to SHRM research, although fewer offered paid adoption leave (28 percent) or paid foster child leave (22 percent).
Employers rethinking paid parental leave policies by adding more time or giving equal time off to all new parents is "definitely a broader trend," Vuicic agreed. "Employees have a much higher expectation around flexibility and the inclusiveness of the benefits that are offered to them. It goes well beyond parental leave."
That's all likely in part thanks to the pandemic, which transformed the way many employees view their benefits.
"The pandemic caused reflection in a way that we haven't seen," she said. "In the modern world of work, it's really upended a default way of working that we had. And the bar has risen for how supportive employers are for flexibility, for inclusion, for mental health. I'm excited about what that means. I think all of this is good for business, it's good for society and I certainly don't want to see us going backward."
A Competitive Advantage
Rolling out a global paid parental leave program hasn't been without its challenges, Vuicic said. Offering a robust amount of time off can be a difficult lift for managers to figure out in terms of work schedules and filling in for those employees who take leave. And dealing with variations of laws and policies worldwide is also a big task.
"It was incredibly complex to navigate," she said. But it already has been worth the challenges.
Thomson Reuters' flexible benefits offerings, including the new paid parental leave policy, have "certainly helped us significantly during the talent war," Vuicic noted. They have been a hit with not only current employees, but also potential ones. That's not surprising, as paid parental leave benefits are still fairly rare, despite growing momentum. The U.S. is one of just a few industrialized countries without nationally mandated paid parental leave, and only about half of employers offer any paid parental leave, according to the most recent leave data from NFP, Trapenasso said.
What's most important, Vuicic said, is that she's making benefits changes that her employees are actually clamoring for—and ones that also improve their well-being. Vuicic hopes that paid parental leave becomes more than just a growing trend and eventually develops into a workplace staple.
She advised other HR and benefits leaders to think about what's best for their employees.
"Start with your colleagues and your talent strategy, and listen and understand what's most important to your people," she said. "Figure out, 'What can you realistically deliver and commit to for your people?' and then focus on offering those. I would always start with your people, and design back from there."