How to Inspire Employees After Parental Leave Ends

By Lacy Lusk Nov 9, 2016
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​Just as companies offer expanded paid-parental-leave programs to recruit and retain employees, employers can distinguish themselves by offering benefits and flexible schedules for parents once they return to the workplace, too.

It can be tough for parents of infants, toddlers or school-age children to juggle the demands of life and work. Employers can help—and build employee engagement—by creating a true family atmosphere.

At W.S. Badger, a company based in Gilsum, N.H., that makes certified organic and all-natural body and skin products, a Babies at Work program gives new parents the opportunity to bring their children to work until they are 6 months old or begin crawling, whichever comes first.

"We have a package of family-friendly policies for our employees who are new parents," said Emily Hall-Warren, SHRM-SCP, director of administration at Badger. "Our hope is that parents will stay home with their kids for about three months."

Badger, which has 95 employees, has a standard short-term disability policy that generally offers six to eight weeks of disability pay to women who have given birth. Badger also offers an additional five weeks of vacation for the primary caregiver and two for the secondary caregiver. The company allows employees to extend maternity leave, unpaid, for up to six months with job protection. Adoptive and foster parents have the same benefits, except the short-term disability.

"From six weeks to six months, employees are welcome to bring their newborns to work—and they can work at a reduced schedule," Hall-Warren said. "We find that newborn to 3 years is an integral period in a child's development, and there's not a lot of support that people get in the community or the business community at all."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Work/Life Fit: Dependent Care]

Babies at Work originated by employee request. A parent who is interested in bringing a baby to work contacts his or her supervisor and, together, the two draw up a memo of understanding of what is expected of the employee and the company.

Badger recognizes that its new parents who have returned to work will be spending part of their days caring for their children. Fellow employees, usually people who have made connections with the child, are designated "baby holders" to allow the parents to get work done.

"In general, it has been relatively painless, and people love seeing babies," Hall-Warren said. "They compare it to what they've seen as parents and times they remember."

Working Alongside Babies

New parents have similar benefits at Menlo Innovations, a software company in Ann Arbor, Mich., where 13 babies have come to work with a parent over the past eight years through a Cubes and Cradles program.

Project manager Lisa Ho and back office manager Emily Stoev are among those who are thankful for the chance to take their children to work.

After six weeks of short-term disability and another six weeks of paid time off, Ho came to work with her son Oliver, who was born in September 2015.

"It was a lot of fun, definitely an adjustment at first to go back to work while taking care of a baby, but a lot of co-workers like Emily would help," said Ho, who has been at Menlo for nine years.

Menlo's office space is arranged in a large, open floor plan, but there is a room for mothers complete with play yards.

"It was great that I could go back to work and we could still be together," Ho said. "I think my co-workers and clients would love seeing a baby in the office. I enjoyed that he could be with me all day. Menlo was great, too, by letting me switch my roles—I worked with Emily some on accounting projects. I could stop and do whatever I could."

Stoev has used the program for each of her two children and has another baby due in December.

The "wonderful experiment," as Menlo CEO Rich Sheridan calls it, began in 2008 when an employee expressed interest in coming back to work after having a child but the day care she and her husband wanted to use was full. Sheridan told her to bring the baby to work, and the company has continued the program ever since. In fact, Sheridan said in a company video that customers who come in for meetings are thrilled to see babies onsite.

"You want to talk about energizing a team, energizing a parent that they can bring their children in here," Sheridan said. "It says you don't have to pretend that you're one person at work and a different person at home."

Thanks to Menlo's family atmosphere, Stoev said, the employees look forward to seeing the next baby come into the office.

"I think my daughter was baby No. 8 here," she recalled. "She came in around the same age Oliver did—at about 3 months old. Then at 5 or 5½ months, the timing was right for day care."

Stoev's son also came to work with her between her parental leave and his placement in day care. Through short-term disability and then paid time off, she was able to stay at home with Stefan for about three months, as she had with Kalina.

Menlo is looking into broadening its short-term disability leave to include new fathers. The company also welcomes school-age children on snow days and allows employees to bring their dogs to work, as well.

Flexibility Helps Provide Balance

For parents who want to return to the workforce, it helps to have an employer that offers a flexible schedule. UW Health in Madison, Wis., tries to meet that demand in a number of ways, including through a Back-Up Care Advantage program that provides up to 250 hours of care in a child's first year.

"We need to be flexible in all different regards," said Anthony Dix, SHRM-SCP, director of HR services at UW Health. "For core benefits, as long as you work 20 hours per week, you get the benefits. There are some [other benefits] at 30. No. 1, it's about helping balance the competing demands of work and life."

Even after a child's first year, the backup care program offers a safety net for when regular child care arrangements fall through. Full-time UW Health employees and physicians are eligible to use the benefit for 60 hours per year, and employees working 20 hours a week or more receive at least 20 hours of backup care per year.

Dix emphasized that UW Health also offers a strong wellness program that helps new parents with stress management and nutrition. Additionally, the company has a comprehensive program to support breast-feeding, and eligible employees can have up to $5,000 a year taken out of their taxable income for dependent care.

In the summer of 2015, the UW Medical Foundation and UW Hospital and Clinics merged to form UW Health. "We weren't offering some of the child care options to our physicians until this past July," Dix said. "But they were excited to get those benefits."

UW Health also provides access to a service called LifeMatters, which allows employees to access information on topics from wills and estates to adoption options. LifeMatters helps find child care providers and offers materials on parenting challenges and on balancing work and family.

"We have a nice array of benefits," Dix added. "We are always trying to assess what's out there and ask ourselves, 'What can we offer and still be fiscally responsible?' "

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