The Best Ways Your Organization Can Support Working Parents
As originally published in the Harvard Business Review
Unlimited leave. Executive coaches for new mothers. Food takeout vouchers. “Flying nannies” who join their executive employers on business trips. In their efforts to do the right thing and woo talent, organizations of all kinds are reaching for headline-grabbing solutions. But what if your organization can’t offer glossy, cutting-edge benefits? What if they’re too costly, don’t work structurally, fly in the face of your corporate culture — or don’t have senior management’s support?
Not to worry: The most powerful work-life solutions are ones every organization can implement. They’re low-intervention and low-drama. Managers can spearhead many of them, even without institutional backing. And none of them cost an incremental dime.
Over the past decade of leading human-capital and work-life efforts at Fortune 500 companies, I’ve advised management teams and coached individuals struggling to balance the competing demands of work and home. I’ve experienced the problem firsthand as a busy working mother, too. The following approaches are what I’ve found the most effective. They may not be glamorous, but they’re practical, actionable, and get results.
Start with the facts. Before launching any support programs for working parents, gather the relevant data: Where do parents sit within the organization? What are their attrition patterns? What information can you gather from annual performance reviews or culture-survey data — or simply from informal conversations? The answers, which should be the basis of your working parent programming, may surprise you. One professional services firm I’ve worked with examined its new-parent retention rates. It didn’t find attrition immediately after maternity leave, but there was a previously unseen pattern of departures 12–18 months afterward. The firm’s strategy: Hold preemptive manager and HR checkpoints nine to 12 months afterward, using the time to discuss work-life issues and career path. The result: Better relationships between employees and managers, and a significant reduction in turnover. Finding the actual pain point, as opposed to the perceived or assumed one, is what leads to effective solutions.
Define the demographic. Most companies concentrate their efforts on “visible working parents” — e.g., new biological mothers — focusing all programming on lactation rooms and other relevant supports. While these are positive, laudable steps, they address the problem too narrowly. Working parenthood is an 18-year job, and it is done by both men and women, biological and adoptive, gay and straight, in all kinds of family structures. Aligning your organization’s programs to this reality — for example, by encouraging all employees to use existing personal days for family care needs — better targets the issue in its broad-spectrum reality, and it sends a more inclusive message, too.
Acknowledge and foster peer-to-peer learning. When working parents need advice or motivation, they turn to the real experts: their respected colleagues and mentors, people they trust who understand the politics and culture inside the organization. Providing basic guidance, even simple talking points, to these internal “peer coaches” enables them to deliver the right messages when it matters.
Become a market maker. Leverage your organization’s existing infrastructure to connect working parents and to make practical aspects of parenting easier. Goldman Sachs’s “Help at Home” intranet bulletin board allows any employee to trade tips and leads on child care. Other companies use the same platform to let employees pass hand-me-down baby and child products to their colleagues. No intranet? A peg board in the cafeteria works just as well. The result: A more collaborative culture, and employees who spend less time worrying about and solving practical parenting problems.
Focus the resources you do have on key transition points. As in an Olympic relay race, working parenthood depends on the ability to successfully navigate transition points — the hand-offs, the turns. Coming back from leave, welcoming a second or third child, or accepting a change in role or schedule are just a few of the transition points that can derail or strain the most competent working parent employee. That’s why concentrating benefits and programming on these critical points can yield significant return on investment. Johnson & Johnson permits mothers and fathers to use their parental leave on a phase-back basis, ensuring not only time out of office but also a gentler return transition. As Peter Fasolo, global head of HR, states: The company doesn’t “dictate how someone should slice up those weeks” of leave. Other organizations offer counseling and support for parent employees who are changing roles or moving to a new office or region. Easing these pivot points can keep your employees more focused and engaged in the moment — and over the long haul.
Categorize communications. Mitigate work-life strain and an “always on” culture by categorizing communications, particularly ones sent outside business hours. One top manager I’ve worked with sends each email with a header: “Not urgent”; “For Monday”; “FYI Only”; “Urgent!” These simple labels let her large team, most of who are working parents, easily sort through what needs to be done ASAP and what can wait until after the ballet recital or the weekend. Encouraging senior managers to do the same can make a huge impact in overall work-life balance perception, with no change in productivity.
Make vacation nonnegotiable. Has every one of your people taken their allotted vacation in the past year? Does anyone have significant accumulated rollover days? Who — and why? How many of them are working parents? Type A professionals working in high-performance organizations often, even in the absence of direct pressure to do so, voluntarily bypass holidays and time off. Among working parents, this practice is particularly dangerous, leading to burnout, family issues, performance decline, or attrition. Smart companies and managers develop ways to “signal” to their employees that it’s time to take a break. At one of my former employers, a demanding professional services firm, division heads left voicemails each June, encouraging their people to plan summer holidays. Another organization I know includes “vacation days taken” at the top of each employee’s performance review, prompting manager attention. Encouraging employees to draw down on existing benefits is easier and more powerful than adding additional “work-life” programs.
Set a visible example. No program or policy will be as effective in supporting and motivating working parent employees as the example of admired leaders who are balancing job and family. The manager who keeps current photos of children at her desk, who visibly leaves early once a month for the school play or soccer game, and who (occasionally) refers to the evening of homework-checking she faces — all while projecting an upbeat, can-do attitude about work — sends a powerful message: I can do this, and you can, too. Make certain you and the other managers in your organization are modeling the behavior and attitudes you want to see in others.
Encourage managers to get personal. Many managers shy away from personal conversation for fear of being inappropriate, and many employees, particularly in pressured environments, hesitate to discuss personal issues for fear of seeming unprofessional or unfocused. Yet in high-performance organizations where hours are long and teams are tight, as one of my coachees puts it, “the job and your life become undistinguishable.” Savvy managers can help employees nip many work-life issues in the bud and make their people feel supported simply by opening the door to new conversations — in an appropriate way. At performance review time, asking “Are there any other career concerns you want to discuss that I may not be aware of?” can effectively open the door. A simple “How were the kids this weekend?” telegraphs your care and lets employees know you have their backs. An employee who feels “whole” at work is less likely to look for other options.
Advertise resources already in place — and destigmatize their use. Many corporations already have significant employee resources already in place — employee assistance programs, counseling benefits, human resources staffers trained in coaching and employee support. Yet most employees don’t know they exist, don’t know how to access them, or are certain that access comes with professional consequence. Smart companies make existing benefits visible and accessible to all. For example, GE’s “GE for Me” website consolidates all working parent–related support and benefits information in a single, easily navigable location. And as one senior U.S. Navy leader told me, “my job in creating a healthy command climate means advertising the available support — encouraging people to access the practical programs, the counseling.” Don’t just offer resources — help your people easily reach them.
The personal and organizational challenges of working parenthood are daunting to all of us. But whether you’re a sleep-starved new parent, a sympathetic manager, a senior leader, or all of the above, don’t fall into the trap of waiting for “big” changes or of seeing the problem as so big and hairy as to be insurmountable. Find a strategy or approach that works, in the context you work — and start moving.