Starting a family is a tremendous milestone. For many people, it’s one of the most exciting, rewarding times in one’s life. A big life change means new adjustments and challenges, too.
It involves more doctor’s visits, more money spent on diapers and daycare, and a lot less sleep. Being a new parent is a full time job on top of all the other responsibilities. When you add a career on top of it, managing everything starts to seem impossible.
Ryan Francis, CEO of Chicago-based software development company LaunchPad Labs, is one of many people who found himself having to balance a growing family and a career. While he was working there Francis and his wife had three children — Henry, Claire and Rowan.
How To Support New Parents at Work
- Offer strong parental leave programs
- Develop ramp-up, ramp-down policies
- Provide childcare benefits
- Offer flexible scheduling
- Create accommodating office environments
- Celebrate the milestones
“It was a huge change for me,” he said. “When I had my first kid, my entire focus was on him for a while. When I had to split my focus between my family and work, it was a huge challenge.”
His wife was in a position to stay home with their kids, though it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Additionally, Francis works from home, which makes it difficult to set boundaries between his work and his responsibilities as a parent.
“When you don’t have that clear line in the sand between work and home, it can create stress,” he said. “There’s times where I’ll be in the zone doing something for work, and then one of my kids runs in, or I’ll hear a tantrum happening in another room.”
While tough to manage, Francis said his experience as a working parent has helped him become a more conscientious and accommodating leader. When it comes to employees starting families, he said employers need to put work into perspective.
“We’re not saving lives or working in an ER — we’re building apps,” he said. “We can build great products and make a lot of money, but that’s all worthless if we’re sacrificing the happiness and fulfillment of the people on our team. The work matters, but not more than our families or kids.”
Raising kids is already hard enough and work doesn’t need to be a source of extra challenges. If you want your employees to feel supported when starting their families, here are a few impactful steps you can take.
Strong Parental Leave Programs
On a fundamental level, comprehensive parental or family leave plans are the most significant way to support employees that are starting families. Parental leave gives employees time to fully attend to their new child and get situated in their new life. Unfortunately, the U.S. falls behind many other countries in regards to the amount of time required from family leave plans. There are no federal laws requiring paid parental leave, and only eleven U.S. states have set policies supporting paid family leave programs. This means that the decision about whether to provide paid leave or not is often left up to companies individually.
“You should be focused on your new kid, and not have to worry about work for a while.”
Regardless of its legal status, the benefits of paid parental leave are clear. Research shows companies that offer paid parental leave have lower turnover rates among new parents, and can improve employee performance by alleviating stress and increasing workplace satisfaction.
For a family leave policy to succeed, it needs to be inclusive of all parents, whether they’re giving birth, adopting, or a supporting partner. Francis explained how his experience as a new father inspired him to update LaunchPad Lab’s family leave policy to be more accommodating for secondary parents. Originally, the company offered 12 weeks paid leave for primary parents, and two paid weeks for secondary parents. Now, Francis’s team lengthened their secondary paid parental leave to four weeks.
“At the end of the day, it’s a huge moment for secondary caregivers too,” he said. “You should be focused on your new kid, and not have to worry about work for a while.”
Ramp Up, Ramp Down Policies
Plenty of people work 40 hours a week right up until their due date. That doesn’t mean it works for everyone. While work can give parents another outlet leading up to the due date, sometimes it’s just not feasible to continue. Plus it can add undue stress and distract from all the preparation that needs to be done before the child’s arrival. In the case of birthing parents, working right up until labor starts can also be detrimental to your health.
Elinor Murarova, trial attorney at Chicago-based business law firm Duane Morris, said that starting a family is a major life change that should be eased into and it shouldn’t feel like a cannonball. Her company offers a ramp-up, ramp-down policy alongside its family leave policy to encourage a gradual transition to and from work.
“It’s a period of time before and after parental leave where your billable hours are reduced by a certain percentage, but your compensation remains the same,” Murarova said. “It’s a built-in structure that allows you to slow down intentionally, so you’re not walking back into the office with a stack of papers and four thousand emails.”
Grace Keith Rodriguez, New York-based tech marketing company Caliber Corporate Advisor’s president, emphasized the value of a formal ramp-up and ramp-down policy. She took parental leave in November 2020 to care for her son, and said the most challenging thing for her wasn’t leaving work, but returning to it.
“Other than my honeymoon, I haven’t taken more than two weeks off work at a time since I graduated from college,” Keith Rodriguez said. “When I came back, I was really trying to figure out how to re-enter after being out for three plus months.”
Keith Rodriguez is now involved in the revision of Caliber’s family leave and parental support policies. One of the areas she plans to adjust is the transition of responsibilities when a new parent takes time off. Her goal is to create guidelines that will make returning to work as seamless and low-stress as possible.
“Depending on someone’s role at Caliber, we’ll typically have a consultant come in to cover their work,” she said. “Then there’s a way to have a full handover from the person who’s leaving to the consultant, and vice versa when they return.”
Before she became the senior marketing director at New York-based compensation software platform DailyPay, Holly Meredith worked in marketing for a cognitive training skills company, and later worked as a media manager for wedding magazines throughout her home state of Nebraska. During this time, she had her first child Colin. She’d go on to have two more kids — Annabelle and Isla.
Even though there was support in previous roles, those companies were small without formal policies in place to support new parents. For Meredith, returning to work came with hard decisions about how she’d balance her attention between her kids and work. She remembers wishing there was more support from her employer with childcare.
“I didn’t want to work full time, because then I’d be paying for daycare and making less than I would working part time,” she said. “I quite possibly would have been working full time much sooner if daycare expenses had not been an issue,” she said.
Offering childcare benefits can make a big impact in the lives of your employees, both financially and emotionally. It gives your full time employees peace of mind and reduces the strain of daycare on their finances. Alongside generous family leave, childcare benefits are becoming more popular among tech employers. In fact, around 56 percent of employers already offer it in some form, according to a report from Care.com. Companies like Upwork, Epsilon and GrubHub are just a few companies that include childcare perks in their benefits packages.
Newborns don’t vibe with a nine-to-five schedule. They need care and attention 24/7. So, new parents on your team will need some leeway.
“My son slept in 30 minute chunks of time for the first three months of his life,” said Keith Rodriguez. “You can’t get much work done in 30 minutes.”
If your employees were up until four in the morning putting their child back to sleep, they’re going to struggle to stay awake in early morning meetings. Forcing your employees into a rigid schedule isn’t a solution, and will only burn them out. Instead, encouraging flexibility with time off and working hours lets new parents get work done when it makes the most sense for them.
Unlimited PTO is one option that some employers rely on to encourage scheduling flexibility. But unless clear guidelines are set around how much time people should take, employees won’t take off as much time as they need. Murarova said that unlimited PTO plans help, but it’s the flexibility she’s offered at Duane Morris that gives her the most peace of mind.
“The hardest thing about being a working parent is managing unpredictability, but having a culture that supports flexibility makes it a little bit easier,” she said. “I can, for example, work remotely when I need to, or take an hour to take my kids to the doctor. It’s okay to leave for an hour or two, and I don’t have to clock that as a full PTO day.”
Office Space Accommodations
When employees do come back to work, the space they return to should be as welcoming and accommodating as possible.
“Supporting parents doesn’t stop at parental leave — you’re a parent for the rest of your life,” Keith Rodriguez said.
Many companies have taken steps to make their offices parent (and child) friendly by creating breastfeeding and meditation rooms. Some, like IBM and Wildbit, even offer onsite childcare and playrooms so employees can bring their children to work without worrying they’ll be a distraction.
“When someone returns from parental leave, what does that look like?” said Keith Rodriguez. “If someone happens to be breastfeeding, you need to allow time and space for that.”
Having a child is incredibly challenging, especially when one is tending to a career at the same time. But new parenthood is also a joyful and exciting time for many people. Just as employees deserve support during the hard times, they also deserve to be celebrated.
Keith Rodriguez’s team helps its employees celebrate every milestone in life. When one of them welcomes a new child, Caliber throws them virtual baby showers, sends gifts, and lends a hand to make the experience easier and happier.
“People need to know that you can have children and it doesn’t have to be some secret that you deal with. Open conversation decreases the stress of having to manage both children and a busy career.”
“The last thing you want to worry about when you’re a new parent is feeding yourself, so a few days into someone’s leave, we send them breakfast bagels or a gift card to buy meals,” she said. “It’s a way to show we’re here for them and are thinking of them.”
The workplace hasn’t always been friendly to new parents, and unfortunately there are still places that aren’t accommodating toward employees starting families. Many new mothers still experience harassment at work, and have even been fired for taking time to care for their children.
Because of this, some new parents fear discussing their experiences and needs will make them appear weak or unable to handle career demands. But hiding things doesn’t make them go away — it just makes them harder to deal with. Murarova urged employers to set a tone of acceptance, and encourage their employees to speak up about what they need.
“If you’re constantly trying to hide the fact that you have children, it will be very stressful and difficult to manage all of your conflicting emotions,” she said. “People need to know that you can have children and it doesn’t have to be some secret that you deal with. Open conversation decreases the stress of having to manage both children and a busy career.”