Attractive Return-to-Work Programs and Why You Need Them

As organizations compete for key talent, stand-out new-parent benefits may be the key to winning.
By: | July 17, 2018 • 5 min read
return to work

Ensuring employees remain engaged and productive, retaining key talent in a recovered economy, and attracting and retaining diverse talent are the trifecta causing HR leaders’ insomnia, according to HRE’s 2018 What’s Keeping HR Up at Night report. Meeting these needs while also keeping business-strategy goals in mind means that HR executives have to come up with creative solutions. Lip service to diversity and inclusion, random pizza parties and offering slightly higher salaries for fewer benefits are ineffective methods for increasing engagement and retention.

To really improve the overall employee experience, experts recommend determining what’s important to employees and embedding it into the workplace culture. Companies that keep this in mind have implemented some unique benefits, including student-loan repayment programs, learning and development opportunities, flexible work arrangements and longer paid parental leave.

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PwC and law firm Schiff Hardin LLP have upped the ante on the latter. Both companies have worked to ensure that their parental benefits programs meet the needs of their employees by ensuring they reflect their employee populations (and are continually updated to reflect cultural and demographic changes), are widely accepted and understood and are entrenched in the workplace culture. One of the most recent benefits introduced at both companies is a reduced-hours return-to-work program for new parents.

According to Amanda Schermer MacVey, partner at Schiff Hardin and chair of its gender diversity subcommittee, women in the legal field often leave the workforce for reasons including a lack of advancement opportunities to wanting to start a family. Schiff Hardin is trying to identify what it can control to keep women in the workplace.

“The Ramp Up/Down return-to-work policy is really geared to promote work/life balance and retaining working parents,” says MacVey. “Any time you add a child to a family, it’s big shift in whatever balance occurred before—professionally stepping away from clients and colleagues for 18 weeks is a significant adjustment, as is returning to that environment.”

The policy allows expectant parents to reduce their billable hours by 20 percent before parental leave and during the month they return to work, with no salary reduction.

MacVey says Schiff Hardin doesn’t call this a benefit, but rather a policy that’s disseminated throughout the firm’s offices. This helps embed Ramp Up/Down into the culture while alleviating the pressure associated with returning to work after being away for months at full speed.

“We don’t want working parents to question the viability of their future at the firm,” she says. “By implementing this policy, we acknowledge the reality that families are faced with when they have a new child, and we create an environment of inclusion that supports and retains working parents.”

Something else she stresses is that this policy, along with Schiff Hardin’s other new-parent benefits, have been designed not only for mothers, but for fathers and other full-time caregivers.

Studies have found that fathers are much more likely to take paternity leave if the workplace culture promotes and encourages it. According to Richard J. Petts, associate professor of sociology at Ball State University, there are numerous social norms and structures in place that deter fathers from taking more than a few days off for paternity leave.

“In our society, women are paid less than men, in part, because they take time off to have kids,” says Petts. “Men internalize this and think, ‘If I take time off for the same reason than I will experience similar penalties.’ ”

Petts adds that research has shown that men who request or take leave have lower performance ratings, are less likely to be considered for promotions and have lower earnings than men who don’t take leave. But, he says, within companies that promote and encourage all parents to take leave and embrace a family-friendly culture, evidence indicates that men will take time off.

Ensuring that all new parents feel comfortable taking leave is something PwC is making happen. Jen Allyn, a diversity strategy leader at PwC says the company looked at the percentage of fathers who went out on leave and found that in 2016 approximately 40 percent of eligible fathers took time off (anywhere from two weeks to six weeks). To get more fathers interested in family leave, PwC increased the amount of paid leave fathers could take from six to eight weeks. When examining the numbers again in 2017, a full 72 percent of eligible fathers took time off for family.

PwC didn’t stop there. As of July 1, 2018, parents with children born (or adopted) April 1, 2018, or later will be allowed to return to work at 60 percent of their regular, full-time schedule. Employees will receive their full pay while transitioning back to work and the benefit covers part-time workers, too.

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Allyn says that PwC heard a lot of anxiety from new parents about returning to work—whether they should return full-time or on a flexible schedule, where to look for child care—but with this 60 percent return-to-work program, the guess work and anxiety are taken out of the working-parent equation. She says that parents can use that month to figure out if they want to work part-time, find appropriate child care and transition smoothly back into working 100 percent of their schedule.

Allyn says that one way PwC plans to promote this return-to-work policy is through personal stories from employees about how it enabled them to feel a semblance of sanity and work/life balance. Though, she says, “balance” isn’t the right word.

“Balance presupposes that these things are always in opposition and that there are spaces where it all levels out,” she says. “Really, it’s juggling the unexpected messy things in life. The more we can let people know they aren’t alone and know that their colleagues juggle the same things, the better.”

Implementing such a policy isn’t without challenge, though. Allyn says there’s always going to be opposition to a benefit that only immediately affects a portion of the population.

“There’s a tendency for another group of people to say, ‘What about me?’ ” she says. “The message leaders need to send is that the equity of these benefits isn’t ‘I’m giving you exactly what I give to another person [at this moment],’ but that we’re creating a place with these benefits for when you need them, or when your colleagues need them.”

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]