Author: Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Thought Leadership

Jennifer Liston-Smith offers some hints on the findings of our Parental Leave Benchmark, to be published later this month. She reminds us of the need for employers to support parental leave returners, particularly in the hybrid world, and the difference it makes to have a well-supported leave in terms of keeping career on track as well as family wellbeing.

Now, more than ever, employers are acutely aware of the importance of retaining talented and knowledgeable people. There is much evidence of the ‘work-life rethink’ prompted both by the pandemic and by new styles of working, for employees at all life stages. Anecdotally, we hear the number of searches on recruiters’ books has leapt by a factor of 10 to 15 times what it was in 2019. This is a key moment to reinforce and strengthen a sense of belonging among all employees.

It applies particularly to the new working parent, resuming their professional role following parental leave. In September, we are in the ‘back to’ season: back to school, fully back to our desks (remote or onsite) after a roll of summer breaks for ourselves and our colleagues. How does ‘back to work’ feel to those whose last 6-12 months have been spent bonding and busy with a new addition to their family?

Managing a series of transitions

People of any gender taking parental leave go through at least two transitions. There is the major life change of becoming a parent, or expanding an existing family. In addition, there is the transition away from, and back to, their professional role, especially significant for those

taking longer periods of leave. All our coaching and advisory experience shows that pro-actively managing the preparation, leave period, and return is absolutely key to ongoing career success; while passively hoping for the best can be a sure route to career derailment.

A well-managed transition is one in which both handover and return happen in the context of the new parent picking up meaningful, career-relevant work on return. It is surprising how often well-meant biases actually sideline the ‘busy’ new parent on return.

So, forward-thinking employers can take two actions:

• They can enhance parental leave of all forms to enable and support the family life transition, investing in the wellbeing of all parties at this vital moment. In the next month, we will be releasing our latest Parental Leave Benchmark showing more employers are now enhancing all forms of parental leave pay and that the best packages now offer 26+ weeks’ enhanced pay in those sectors competing for highly-qualified knowledge workers.

• Top employers also acknowledge the transition with programmes of coaching, manager training, app-based communication, internal networks and other supports to guide, mentor and encourage the individual, their manager and teams to smooth the transition and boost longer-term success.

New returners in a new world

Our current times call for this support to ‘go large’: parenting a new child during the pandemic has meant something different from the norm. There will have been fewer parent & toddler get-togethers, fewer stays with relatives and therefore – among other impacts – less experience of being away from the child. Settling into the routine of childcare may feel more daunting for both parent and child.

The new parent is also returning, in many roles, to a hybrid working world, combining remote and onsite working. Our coaching has long included a focus on the new parent staying ‘visible’ at work in career progression terms. That can be harder to navigate within the new norms, and an experienced sounding board or mentor can make a difference in both challenging the individual (or manager’s) habits and expectations and providing a supportive, confidential space to think, and breathe.

The data in our forthcoming Parental Leave Benchmark will show that provision of online or app-based coaching / advice for the new parent has increased by 200% and by 100% for online or app-based coaching for managers since our last benchmark in 2019. Our team has recently reworked our award-winning Parental Leave Toolkit, including even more options for the individual to tailor their journey to their needs. This responds to this growing need to engage and encourage leave takers and leave returners; and to give managers just-in-time tools for best practice. The Benchmark also shows that group coaching has risen by 333% and the provision of onsite childcare support has grown 100%.

All this shows that forward-thinking employers are stepping up in recognising the need to get this transition right. It is driven by the competition for talent, and there are also well-known cost savings. Our client data show a typical rise in return rates of 12 to 14 percentage points, meaning a programme very quickly breaks even and then yields a high return, in every sense.

Closing the gender gap

Another notable point from our Benchmark research is that there is a rise in provision of enhanced paternity or partner leave pay beyond 2 weeks’: 21% of employers in our nearly 700 sample now offer more than 2 weeks’ enhanced pay whereas only 9% offered more than 2 weeks’ enhancement in 2019.

However, in order to truly encourage shared parenting and to remove gender biases from the potential career impact of taking parental leave, paternity / partner packages would need to be a great deal higher. Some forward-thinking organisations are equalising pay across all types of leave, and it is these employers who will in turn have the better story to tell in their Gender Pay Gap narrative and action plan.

At this time, inclusion is high on many employers’ agenda. Ensuring that working parents of every gender are seen as stakeholders in our inclusion programmes will make a difference in talent retention and attraction terms. Parental leave takers and returners will be experiencing this as a moment that matters for real engagement and sense of belonging.