A Startup Approach to Rethinking Family Leave

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

As we push for gender equality and greater cultural diversity at tech companies, we need to be even more thoughtful about how we are crafting family leave policies. Because as the ratio of women in tech increases, odds are that having multiple primary caregivers on parental leave concurrently will follow suit. This could prove especially challenging for startups.

At the same time, larger tech companies are offering incredible perks today like IVF subsidies and five to 12 months of time off. Startups need to stay competitive with these large companies on the recruiting front, but also need to be more mindful about what is feasible. Taking a creative and considerate approach to these policies can be extremely beneficial for the sustainable growth and health of these companies.

It is so important to balance taking care of expecting employees and also those remaining team members, but this is easier said than done. Right now our company is growing massively in terms of both headcount and customer base — with diversity being one of our core values. Our San Francisco office is more than 50 percent women, and as we grow, this topic has moved to the front burner for us. We have our first expecting parent who is helping to drive these policies, and she oversees a lean but mighty team of four.

As CEO it is so important to me that as Helpshift strives to create positive change in the workplace for our customers, we also want to make sure we are taking this to heart internally, and hopefully driving broader industry change as a result. These are some of our considerations and recommendations as we evaluate and formulate family leave policies.

Form a Committee that Includes Varying Perspectives

There are quite a few stakeholders when it comes to parental leave: do not create this policy in a vacuum. Of course there are the expecting parents, but it is important to include other involved parties (without having too many cooks in the kitchen.) Consider including employees who are already parents and can speak to the pros and cons of policies from previous jobs. It is also helpful to invite a manager who can represent how a team will be affected by extended absence, and a member from the finance team for budgetary considerations. Have an initial working session or two with the committee to brainstorm and discuss policy options, and request their feedback on a draft before finalizing.

Consider Gradual Reentry Weeks

There’s no magic amount of time off that works for everyone. Yet one constant is the difficulty parents face upon returning and having to make that stark transition from full time parenting to full time work. A great option to facilitate this transition is to allow primary caregivers to gradually increase their days in the office. The first week back might only be one day, then two days the following week…making the eventual five day week less daunting. Remote work for certain jobs might be okay too—but this option definitely doesn’t work for every position. Be extra mindful when setting precedents for these “work from home” allowances, as this can be an especially slippery slope.

Budget Contractors and Fill-Ins at the Corporate level

Teams shouldn’t dread the day that their colleagues go on maternity or paternity leave. Employees should be excited and supportive, but oftentimes they may have subconscious resentment about having to pick up the extra workload for an extended period of time. One way to combat this and ensure the health of the team is to have a company-wide fund for contractors to fill in during family leave. It’s difficult to predict which teams will have employees go on leave and when, so building this into the annual budget on an institutional level will set everyone at ease. This includes the expecting parents, who might otherwise delay letting their teams know for fear of retaliation. By providing a supportive and inclusive environment in this way, managers may also have greater visibility in advance, and be able to plan better moving forward.

Thoughtfully Accelerate Hires and Adjust Goals Accordingly

Contractors might not always work, though— especially for roles that require extensive training and onboarding. Sometimes teams may need to adjust their goals, timelines, and new hires to compensate for those going out on leave. It’s simply unreasonable to expect a sales team with two account executives who are out for the quarter to carry the same team quota. Perhaps the quota needs to be adjusted, or hiring and recruitment needs to be expedited. If there are two positions on the success team opening up in the next six months, one junior manager and one senior manager for instance, consider prioritizing the senior hire as it would be easier for that person to ramp up while the new parent is out on leave.

Having a comprehensive family leave policy is integral today in order to grow both in terms of hiring and retention, and also solidifying a desirable company culture. While it is also important to still accommodate individual needs, having a strong foundation is necessary as family leave will have an increasingly significant impact on those startups that value diversity and equality.

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