6 opportunities to make new parents feel more welcome back at work

When Kelly Sizemore approached her manager with a proposal for her post-maternity leave return to work, she was apprehensive; no one in a regional role at engineering consulting company Kimley-Horn like she had at that time had gone out on leave in recent years—and they certainly hadn’t asked to return on a part-time schedule, like she was planning to.

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At first, the reaction wasn’t great, she acknowledged during a session at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference last week in Las Vegas. But after a somewhat tense meeting, her supervisor called her before she even reached the parking lot and told her, “We’d rather have some of you than none of you. We’ll figure out how to make it work.”

That has since become a mantra for the organization’s work around parental leave, Sizemore says. Shortly after her return, Kimley-Horn decided to devote its annual strategy meeting to an ongoing challenge: recruiting, developing and retaining women. Ultimately, the organization, which employs 7,000 people, rolled out a sea of new parental benefits, including “Mom Buddies” and Teams and Facebook groups to connect expectant parents with employees who’ve been through similar experiences; mother’s rooms in every office; and breastmilk shipping services for traveling, breastfeeding moms.

Parents are also able to participate in Mindful Return, a four-week training program for employees across industries and organizations returning from leave, which Sizemore says was “very impactful” on her own post-baby work experience.

Messaging matters for new working parents

Mindful Return conducted a study on the first 1,000 participants in its program, finding that, over a five-year period after their return from parental leave, 85% were still with the same employer and 93% were still in the workforce.

Lori Mihalich-Levin, Mindful Return
Lori Mihalich-Levin, Mindful Return

“We know it makes a difference when employers say to their employees, ‘Hey, we want you to come back, and we’re going to give you the tools to help you do that,’ ” said Lori Mihalich-Levin, founder of Mindful Return and author of Back to Work After Baby, at the HBLC session.

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Proactively offering support to returning parents is something more employers need to consider doing, she says, noting that 40% of American households include children under 18 and, in 2021, 62% of two-parent households had both parents working. However, only 64% of working women return to work after having a baby—meaning a full one-third of the female workforce is consistently leaving.

Mihalich-Levin says most new moms (and dads) fit into one of three buckets: One group won’t come back to work after baby no matter what the employer does, one will absolutely return no matter what level of support the organization offers, and the third—“the huge middle,” she says—just isn’t sure, with most waiting to see what kind of support they will receive upon their return.

And that presents a prime opportunity for employers, particularly in today’s tight labor market.

“There are probably 748 things employers could be doing for working parents,” Mihalich-Levin says. “But my philosophy is that you have to start small and you have to start somewhere. Take baby steps toward advancing support for working parents.”

Ways to help working parents

Mihalich-Levin and Sizemore offered six ways employers can make new parents not only feel comfortable—but excited—to return to work:

Celebrate your employees’ life events

Leaders and managers need to make employees feel like their big life event is a celebration—not a chore for the company. “A positive mindset is where it all begins,” Sizemore says.

That can include emailed announcements to the company about the birth or adoption of a baby, updates on a company intranet, and gifts—think, branded onesies, toys and meal-delivery services.

Importantly, leaders need to model this celebratory mindset shift—don’t just endorse meetings for new parent employees, show up to them—and managers need to be trained about how to make employees feel like the company is behind them. For instance, instead of a supervisor questioning an expectant father about if he’s going to take leave, a better way to phrase it would be “How much time are you going to take off?” Sizemore says.

See also: Here’s how working moms want employers to support them

Consider your policies

HR should benchmark its parental policies not only against competitors but across industries, Sizemore says. Consider upping the ante to offer full parental leave—gender-neutral, with the same leave offered to all new parents—flexible work, and ramp-down and ramp-up policies that allow parents to gradually prepare for leave and return from it with reduced schedules. While these may look different depending on the organization, workers ramping down and up should still have access to full-time pay, the speakers agree. HR can be even more proactive and consider bringing new parents back for their first day mid-week—giving the family the opportunity to get adjusted to having the new baby in daycare, if that’s the case.

Kelly Sizemore, Kimley-Horn

Focus on communication

From conversation guides to help employees and managers talk more openly about new parent challenges to keeping the company intranet refreshed with messaging about how the company is helping employees meet those needs, communication needs to be top-most in efforts to retain new parents. Information about parental policies and programs—along with ways to build community with other working parents—should be included in open enrollment and benefits communications; such messaging can also serve as an effective recruitment tool, Sizemore says.

Update your programs

Among the most sought-after parental programs—especially given that 20% of all childcare positions disappeared once the pandemic started, Mihalich-Levin notes—is childcare assistance, including subsidized and backup programs. Other areas where employers can innovate are coaching, using either internal or external resources, and enrollment in programs like Mindful Return. Lactation support is another area seeing growth, as employers move to comply with the newly enacted PUMP Act; beyond the pumping rooms most employers now will be required to provide, some organizations are paying for breastmilk shipping and storage and providing on-site refrigeration services.

Catch up with HRE’s full HBLC coverage HERE.

Build community and connection

What many new parents are craving, Mihalich-Levin says, is simply knowing they’re not alone—which is why mentoring programs, parental leave support groups and employee resource groups can be effective tools in easing the transition back to work.

While working at a law firm, Mihalich-Levin served as a “buddy” for new parents returning to work and was struck by how impactful it was for them to meet others who had been through the ups and downs of welcoming a new baby.

“Hearing other people reflect back and say, ‘Oh no, this is a human experience; it’s not just you’ can be really normalizing,” she says.

Leverage data collection

It’s difficult to improve the offerings for your working parents without understanding what really matters to them, Mihalich-Levin says. For instance, ensure you know the number of weeks of leave taken by both new moms and dads, across functions and job levels, so you can pinpoint any areas where benefits are going under-utilized. Utilization should also be looked at as it ties to employee engagement, retention and promotion.

Employers should remember, Mihalich-Levin says, that having a baby is a life-changing event for employees—and it’s important to empower them to take that journey at their own pace.

“When you put supports in place and when employees feel they can navigate through the transition—which is a yearlong one, not a one-week event—you’ll be able to retain them at a much higher rate.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].