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What Working Parents Really Want

How much leave is enough? What about flex-time or help with paying for the crazy cost of day care?

What Working Parents Really Want
[Photo: Flickr user Jake Stimpson]

Last year, Apple and Facebook both announced that they would cover egg freezing as a benefit for female employees. If you’re a woman who is considering postponing parenthood, this perk might be enticing, but the majority of parents want something different–something a lot less advanced and a lot less expensive. They want flexibility.

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“Both women and men want autonomy and responsibility to determine how and when their work gets done,” says Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother magazine and Working Mother Research Institute, which does an annual survey identifying the 100 best employers for parents. “Year after year, it’s the number one answer in our Best Companies survey.”

How Much Leave Is Enough?

Unfortunately, it’s not a common perk. New York City public relations consultant Jenelle Hamilton discovered that fact when she informed her boss that she was pregnant. Originally from the U.K., where mothers receive up to 52 weeks of maternity leave, she expected congratulations and a nice maternity package, but the response wasn’t exactly a bundle of joy.

“I was offered just six weeks, and two days after I gave birth, I was fielding phone calls from the office,” says Hamilton. She also had to make a conscious effort to wean her daughter from nursing before going back to work, because there was no place in the office for her to pump her breast milk.

Public relations is a profession that is typically filled with young people who are single and have no commitments, admits Hamilton, who was the first person in the agency to get pregnant. “Unfortunately my firm was really confused as to how to handle [my pregnancy],” she says. “I wish they would have given me the option to work from home one or two days per week. When my nanny was ill, I’d have to call and say I couldn’t come in, and they would give me hell about it.”

Because of the inflexibility, Hamilton left her job to start her own PR consulting business. Representing the Shorty Awards as well as fashion industry clients, including designer Bob Mackie, she has a small staff. While they all fit the profile of her former coworkers–-no kids–Hamilton says her experience has ensured that she’ll put a good maternity or paternity plan in place when the time comes.

As a father, Ramon Khan fared much worse. Working in the CNC machining industry in Houston, his employer wasn’t open to the idea of paternity leave.

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“Basically their idea was take off work a couple days to get your spouse situated and then get back to the office ASAP,” he says. “When I inquired about paternity leave, they just laughed at me.”

So he quit. “Ultimately, you have to prioritize yourself and ask what is more important: your career or your family?” says Khan, who today is a business development manager for National Air Warehouse, a wholesaler supplier of HVAC systems. “Thankfully my decision led to better opportunities.”

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 mandates that companies with 50 or more employees must provide employees with job-protected leave for up to 12 weeks, but that time off doesn’t come with a paycheck. Tech companies seem to be leading the pack when it comes to offering good parental leave policies, with salary: Apple, for example, allows four weeks before and up to 14 weeks after delivery for mothers, and up to six weeks for fathers and adoptive parents; Facebook offers four months for all parents.

Flexibility Versus Face Time

While perks like these are great, tech companies also have a culture that encourages working long hours and “leaning in.”

“When you’re in the moment of needing paid leave for maternity, paternity, and adoption, it will be the most important thing,” says Owens, whose study found the average to be seven weeks for maternity, five weeks for adoption, and three weeks for paternity. “When you’re out of that moment, though, we think you should have that and a whole lot more.”

While it’s a cheap benefit, Owens believes that many companies shy away from perks like flex-time due to the old-fashioned thinking that face time equals productivity.

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“But that just causes parents undo stress,” she says. “There are moments when we’re needed in other areas–like at our child’s school for a midday [performance]–and most of us are willing to make the sacrifice of burning the midnight oil so we can be there for our children. Giving employees the ability to be away for that hour takes away stress; they don’t have to take the day off or, worse yet, lie.”

Companies also struggle with the thought of offering remote or nontraditional hours because it creates a management issue, says Owens.

“Managers have to work harder to track projects,” she says. “They can’t stroll the floor and do pop-in meetings.”

But studies show that the benefits far outweigh the stress. Employees who are given flexibility are more engaged and productive. Absentee goes down and health and wellness go up. “When you give employees your trust, they often deliver,” says Owens. “Flexibility is a form of trust.”

While work-life balance is by far the greatest request, there are other criteria parents use to judge an employer, including childcare.

Help Paying For It All

“Affordability is really important because it’s expensive,” says Owens. “There aren’t scholarships like you get for college.” In vitro is also an enticing perk to employees, and many of the 100 Best Companies have been offering that for decades, says Owens.

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But egg freezing? It hasn’t cracked Owen’s list–at least not yet. As it becomes widely used and more women consider this alternative, experts say it might gain popularity as an employee benefit.

“Having a high-powered career and children is still a very hard thing to do,” Brigitte Adams told NBC News. An egg-freezing advocate and founder of the patient forum Eggsurance.com, Adams said the benefit demonstrates that companies are investing in women and supporting them in carving out the lives they want.

As law firms–also notorious for demanding long hours of its workers–start considering covering this benefit, Harvard Law School Professor Glenn Cohen questioned the message the new benefit is sending. “Would potential female associates welcome this option knowing that they can work hard early on and still reproduce, if they so desire, later on? Or would they take this as a signal that the firm thinks that working there as an associate and pregnancy are incompatible?” he wrote on his blog.

Time will tell, but Hamilton and Khan are proof that employees will leave when their life-balance needs are not met.

“Great companies are in a race for talent, and they know they have to do things to compete,” says Owens. She suggests that working parents who are unhappy with their conditions take advantage of power in numbers and form an employee group to demand change. “Look at what our high-ranking companies are doing. Share that information with HR. Seeing what 100 progressive companies are doing to win the war on talent can resonate and influence change.”

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