This insights piece is co-authored by Barbara Bradley, government and public sector expert at PA and Liz Rushton, Director at KANGAROO Coaching.
Over recent years, organisations at the forefront of advancing their workplace culture have seized the opportunity to improve overall business performance through introducing innovative approaches to creating more inclusive cultures for all employees, including new parents. In 2019, approximately 1 million new parents returned to work in the UK. Organisations need to adapt at pace to ensure they’re providing the right kind of work environment.
In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about increased recognition of the importance of employee well-being, and the value of flexible working. This has encouraged many organisations to re-think their normal working practices in a move to find a better and more productive equilibrium.
Over the last year, we’ve been working with KANGAROO Coaching, a business that specialises in engaging and retaining new parent employees, to understand how we can better support new parent employees.
During our work together, we uncovered three key areas of activity that organisations can focus on to build an inclusive and supportive environment for all new parents. To do this, organisations must focus on:
Creating policies and processes that support new parents
In 2020, parental leave coaching experts Jane Moffett and Nicki Seignot conducted a survey completed by over 400 parents who had returned from a parental break. Their research found that the number one factor that new parent employees cite as important in making a successful transition back to work from parental leave is the option to work flexibly.
With working practices having altered so fundamentally during COVID-19, the ability to work flexibly has never been more important - in fact, nine out of 10 working parents and carers want their workplaces to retain flexible working post COVID-19.
Organisations are taking note. In the UK, insurance company Aviva was one of the first to offer equal parental leave, and in 2020, 32 per cent of Aviva UK new dads worked flexibly when they returned to work. Additionally, when the UK entered into another national lockdown due to the pandemic in early 2021, insurance firm Zurich introduced fully paid emergency lockdown leave for parents and carers. The firm recognised that while flexible working is helpful for parents trying to balance work, childcare and home-schooling during the pandemic, it isn’t enough.
As well as having policies that support working parents, the policies and processes should be clear and easily accessible, and consistently applied and embedded across the organisation. This will promote a sense of transparency, certainty and fairness amongst employees. By refreshing parental leave policies and advertising them clearly, organisations can ensure all employees can access them. Not only is this useful for parent employees, but it ensures the entire organisation understands how they can support their colleagues.
Building a line management community
Another key finding of the Moffett and Seignot research was the importance of the relationship between the new parent employee and their line manager. According to the experience of many of the survey respondents, this relationship has the potential to make or break a successful return.
Giving line managers an awareness of what can be important at different stages helps build line manager confidence and encouragement to proactively manage their employees. Encouraging good communication between managers and employees throughout this period can also ease this time of transition. At Aviva UK, line management support is critical to new parent employees, with 92 per cent stating their line manager was supportive of their decision to take parental leave.
An effective way to build a supportive community is by holding sessions for line managers which focus on tips and practical tools for managing employees going off on, or returning from, parental leave. These include defining approaches to planning ‘Keeping in Touch’ days, having a conversation about contact when the employee is off on leave, and using a brain-based approach to reducing stress and increasing positivity and productivity for new parent employees.
Providing support for new parent employees
Importantly, truly inclusive organisations recognise that each new parent faces a unique set of changes. This enables the organisation to develop flexible approaches that can be introduced to ease the transition back to work.
As well as the practical side of managing a return to work with a new child, many new parents are also managing a shift in identity, which has an effect on personal values, priorities and often outward behaviour. Parent returner programmes can help new parents adjust to these fundamental changes as they return to work and enable them to get back up to speed earlier.
In Moffett and Seignot’s research, they found that at three months, 60 per cent of new parent employees who had attended the programme felt ‘truly back at work’, compared to 39 per cent of new parent employees who hadn’t attended one.
Medical device company Johnson & Johnson, for example, strives to offer all employees a culture of health, to help them fulfil their family and other personal responsibilities. This is at the core of their parental leave programme. From offering the option of a phased return to work to providing support materials and access to coaching – employees benefit from a gentler return to the workplace.
By adopting these approaches, it won’t take long for organisations to notice the shift in how their people feel about their individual experiences with parental leave. If organisations can create a culture where people can voice their feelings and find the support they need, then they’ll be able to constantly evolve their parental support programme, helping the entire organisation to work together better.