The United States is the only developed economy that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave, and one of the few industrialized nations that doesn’t provide paid parental leave. And while the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates unpaid leave for some U.S. employees, workers at smaller companies are excluded based on the assumption their employers couldn’t survive having an employee away for an extended period of time.
My team’s recent experience is a real-life counterargument to that assumption.
Lee, the director of marketing strategy for our five-person content marketing agency, had a baby in early December–our busiest time of year. While we definitely missed her while she was gone, the company didn’t fall apart. Instead, honoring our commitment to let her recover from birth and bond with her new baby actually made the company stronger. Here’s how.
When we found out Lee was pregnant, we mapped out a budget for how we would cover her time away, including an increased allowance for outsourcing some tasks to freelancers. We determined that we could comfortably provide her with seven weeks of fully paid maternity leave, plus several weeks of part-time work at her full salary before and after her leave.
This exercise also confirmed our hunch that the cost of paying for Lee’s maternity leave was much more cost-effective than losing and trying to replace a vital employee.
The good thing about babies is you know they’re coming months in advance, so we had some time to figure out how we would manage during Lee’s leave.
We used this time to get Lee’s processes, passwords, and project details out of her head and into a system where other team members could access them. Starting early gave us time to write everything down and organize the information in a smart way.
We found having a strong project-management platform made it easy to transition work to other employees before Lee went on leave and for her to jump back into things when she returned. No essential tasks were dropped when Lee went on leave because everything had been reassigned to another team member. Instead of spending her first week back digging through a million emails, Lee was able to read through the progress we’d made in her absence on Basecamp and quickly get back up to speed.
Once the processes were recorded and shared, Lee worked on cross-training the people who would be taking over her work–including me. Our goal was to spread the work out as evenly as possible. Since we started early, we had plenty of time to identify information gaps and ask questions.
This also gave people a chance to discover talents they didn’t know they had. For example, I learned I wasn’t too bad at writing web copy, something I had reflexively assigned to Lee. And our HR director turned out to be a fine social media manager.
When you do a job every day, it’s easy to assume you’re doing it the best way. But sometimes fresh eyes can spot room for improvement.
While Lee was out, we made a number of tweaks to our usual processes that made us more efficient overall, including outsourcing some administrative tasks to a virtual assistant to free us all up to focus on more strategic client work. And when Lee came back, we didn’t automatically dump all her old duties back on her. We reconsidered who was doing what, and made sure everyone was using their time in the best way possible.
Now that Lee is back and we know the company can function comfortably (at least in the short term) with just a four-person team, we’re encouraging others to take time off to rest.
Overall, the process went smoothly. Had there been complications, though, it would have been trickier. So we added short- and long-term disability insurance to our benefit offerings this year to better protect the company and our employees.
So the next time a member of your team comes to you with news she is expecting a baby, consider it an opportunity to fully support your employees. In Lee’s words: “All mommy-war drama aside, I can say that it’s hard to leave a new baby in someone else’s care to come back to work. If my job was just a paycheck, it would have been easy for me to mentally check out or leave altogether. It’s my team of committed, caring coworkers that make me excited to have this job every day.”
Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Reputation Capital. Before launching a content marketing firm in her home state of Louisiana, she spent more than 10 years working as a traditional journalist, primarily at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column. She is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprising the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs.