Nearly 80% of my company is comprised of women in their late 20s to 40s, which means that up to 20% of our workforce could be on maternity leave at any given time. Rather than see this as an obstacle, we chose to embrace the opportunity to create a maternity leave policy that works for both employees and the company.
Starting out, our organization was so small we didn’t have a formal procedure on the books. But we’d heard about other small companies facing problems because they lacked parental leave policies. So, once our staff reached 10 to 15 people—and two of them became pregnant around the same time—we began developing the parental leave policy we have in place now, which offers new parents a total of up to eight weeks of paid leave and an additional four unpaid.
Since then, it’s improved retention and landed us recognition as one of the best places for women to work. It also taught us more about growing and training all of our employees, not just those on leave.
But it’s done something else that we couldn’t have foreseen: Adopting a robust parental leave policy taught us a lot how to delegate responsibility to all our employees.
The reason for that is simple. Taking leave pushes employees to focus on how to keep things running smoothly in their absence and without their input.
We ask employees to draw up plans for their own coverage, support, and escalation before they go on leave. When they return and don’t need to take back 20–30% of their old duties, they often find themselves in different or more elevated roles. Because the theoretical "How would this get done without you?" becomes real, the remaining employees have to come up with solutions.
While we normally reserve this exercise for those departing on parental leave, we've found it helps to have all our leaders—including those who aren’t expecting parents—periodically plan a transition of 80–100% of their responsibilities for a two- or three-month period. We do this routinely and find that it helps everyone maintain their focus, highlights inefficiencies, and allows systems and processes to replace individuals' on-the-fly judgment.
In own experience, parental leave has actually created new opportunities for growth and systemization within the company.
But delegation cuts both ways. Just as expecting parents delegate their own tasks to other colleagues, the company delegates leaves some key decisions up to employees who are preparing to go on leave. Ultimately, it all comes down to trust and placing responsibility into your employees’ own hands. Here are a few ways we’ve learned to do that.
1. Offer flexible re-entry. The first three to four months of parenthood can be brutal. Re-entering the workforce when a baby is just beginning to sleep through the night can lead to wiped-out employees who make poor decisions due to exhaustion.
Because we’d rather have 50% of someone who’s well-rested than 100% of someone who’s exhausted, we offer flexible re-entry for new parents. Netflix follows a similar path by giving employees "the choice to come back part-time, full-time, or to return and then go back out as needed," as Entrepreneur reports. Communication throughout the leave period helps leadership better prepare for an early or late entry back into the workforce.
2. Ditch the schedule. Finding reliable childcare can be tricky, and strict schedules only heap more stress on new parents. Nearly 75% of unemployed new mothers would've considered returning to their positions had they been offered more flexible hours. Increased flexibility takes pressure off the employee and increases retention of high performers, all without compromising the quality of their work.
Our parental leave policy has helped remind us to keep our entire culture flexible—always. We believe in getting results and keeping clients happy, and that starts by giving employees the freedom to determine their own hours. When good employees deliver outstanding results, no one cares what schedule they’re working.
3. Give budding stars a chance to shine. When one employee goes on parental leave, that's a great time to test an up-and-comer who might be ready for a promotion. Allowing a strong employee to stretch her abilities will give both you and that employee perspective on her strengths and growth potential—not to mention an out if she’s not ready, since this is a finite period of time. We find these kinds of stretch opportunities increase confidence and satisfaction among our employees.
Supporting your best employees is a no-brainer, but turning paid leave into a strategic advantage is smart. Incorporate a policy that works for your company, and watch as job satisfaction and retention soar. Your employees want to do great work, so use their time away as a chance to re-evaluate and grow.
Robert Glazer is the founder and managing director of Acceleration Partners, which was ranked #5 on Great Places to Work's Best Workplaces for Women and #8 on Fortune's Best Workplaces for Flexibility.