By Manon DeFelice
For a mother who is returning to the office after maternity leave, reentry can be a bumpy ride. After three or so months at home with her baby, she has to shift her attention back to work, a move that can feel sudden and startling. Throw in some sleep deprivation and new concerns like childcare and breast-milk pumping, and it’s no wonder that some women come back from maternity leave briefly—only to quit shortly thereafter.
According to Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, 43% of women with children leave their jobs or off-ramp for a certain period of time. Many of these women are highly qualified rock stars, leaving companies with a loss of key talent.
Realizing that their female professionals are too valuable to lose, a few pioneering companies are adopting maternity-leave bridge policies that allow a mother to return to the office at a gradual pace . Perhaps she starts by working just a few days a week, and then she slowly adds more days. Think of it as easing in (the new leaning in)—a program that closes the gap between the baby zone and full-time work.
At some organizations, women in leadership positions are setting the tone for this new transition. Ellen Gustafson, co-director of the Summit Institute(the nonprofit arm of Summit), was able to create her own maternity leave and chose to return part-time, working from home after two months. “My baby girl is currently 10 weeks and we are still figuring out a feeding and nap schedule along with finalizing childcare, so being able to ease back in before going full-time is a game-changer,” says Gustafson. “I’m ready for the mental stimulation of work, but also need time to settle into being a new mom.”
Introducing Returnity (aka On-Ramping After Maternity Leave)
At my own company, Inkwell, our chief of staff recently went on maternity leave (our first Inkwell baby!). We have agreed that when her leave is over, she can choose to work whichever hours, and however many hours, work best for her (compensation will be adjusted accordingly) until she is ready to come back 100%. The power and control are in her hands. At Inkwell we call this Returnity: a family-friendly program that honors the needs of working parents of a new baby .
One company implementing a Returnity program is GIPHY, the first and largest platform of GIFs. GIPHY is four years old, and the company has grown to about 85 employees with offices in New York and Los Angeles.
When Clare MacGoey, GIPHY’s chief financial officer, came back from having her second baby in early 2017, she was one of the first GIPHY moms to use their recently implemented maternity leave policy. “I thought I was an expert at this, since I’d already had one baby and come back to work before,” says MacGoey. But while her first baby slept through the night at three months, her second baby was awake in the wee hours for several more months. “I just needed sleep, so it was tough trying to balance work those first few months. I was still nursing, pumping at work and trying to support a two-year-old desperate for my attention since her baby brother arrived.”
Working with GIPHY’s director of operations, MacGoey drew from her experience to help the company develop a transition policy for parents returning to work after family leave. “I think an ideal transition is less hours to start,” she says. “Getting home for the baby’s bedtime is important to new parents. You shouldn’t expect to take on 100% of your previous workload from day one, balance everything and hope to function properly.”
After MacGoey’s experience, the company has a more nuanced understanding of what parents need—and those needs can differ from parent to parent. “The company will support you with what you need in the transition process,” she says, noting that GIPHY’s Returnity policy also includes some training for managers. “We need to make sure that managers know what to expect, so they are able to support new parents in that transition period.”
The biggest hurdle that MacGoey sees to Returnity is that people are often hesitant to voice their needs. “I’ve heard from many working parents at different companies that people are too scared to ask for this, even when they’re in leadership positions,” she says. “Here at GIPHY we have an incredible team of talented people, many of them young and not yet parents. I want to make sure that GIPHY is a great place for them to work if they become parents. I think it will help to ensure that we keep these amazing people with us.”
A Family-Friendly Policy For A Family-Friendly Company
Another startup to take the leap into Returnity is Omni, a San Francisco-based startup that offers on-demand storage and access. With the tap of a mobile app, Omni picks up your items for storage in one of its warehouses, or delivers an item back whenever you need it. In the spirit of the shared economy, Omni also lets you share or donate your stuff (such as that infant car seat or pair of skis you’re not using anymore).
When Laura Faustman—currently Omni’s head of corporate communications and human resources—started working as a consultant for the company two years ago, she hoped to transition to a full-time role. Yet she was also pregnant, which she assumed would be a deal-breaker for the company’s founder and CEO, Tom McLeod. But it wasn’t. “I would never not hire you because you’re pregnant,” McLeod told her. “I think it’s great.”
Not only did McLeod hire Faustman full-time when she was three months pregnant, but he also gave her leeway to create her own maternity leave and reentry policy. What ended up working best for Faustman was a gradual on-ramping in which she worked three days a week in the office and “flexed from home” two days a week. After about a month with that schedule, she flexed from home one day a week, and by the third month she was back to five days a week in the office.
For McLeod, having family-friendly policies goes hand-in-hand with Omni’s mission and service offerings. “If we store strollers, we need to know the behavior and understanding of the people who purchase strollers,” he says. “I just think it’s myopic these days to run companies that don’t take into account the cross-section of people who work for them. We need to create the best experience for the product side as well as for the internal side.”
For Faustman, a gradual reentry was just what the doctor ordered. “Everybody [at Omni] was way more interested in me being present and excited, rather than me just being physically in the room,” she says. Now a gradual reentry after family leave is the policy on the books at Omni—though like at GIPHY, the details are flexible. “We have one gentleman who recently let us know that his wife is expecting, and the policy can work for him pretty much the same way it worked for me. If what he needs turns out to be different, there’s always room for conversation.”
Are you planning to go on family leave, or is someone in your office taking time off to have a baby? Consider talking to your employer about adopting a Returnity program. If you are an employer, consider creating such a program in your office, and reap the benefits of attracting and retaining your key talent.