Parent and baby 1

Paid parental leave is something that we are very fortunate to have in this country. Even today there are countries that do not offer any paid leave or job security for employees to take time off when having a child, the United States chief among them.

However, despite the many benefits to parents and their families that such leave can offer, it can also cause a great deal of stress and worry for both the parent and their colleagues. Parents worry about the future of their job, employers must decide how best to cover their absence and co-workers have to consider how the absence will affect their team. Viewing parental leave as an opportunity to trial different ways of working in a progressive and innovative way sends out positive messages about your organisation. After all parental leave is anticipated, not an unforeseen crisis, and plans can be made.

The first step in successful parental leave management is to engage in and encourage honest discussion with both the parent-to-be and the rest of the team. It might be tempting to have these conversations with the parent and teammates separately , but not only can it be reassuring for the parent to be included, it can also streamline reintegration into the workplace if those going on leave know who will be handling their responsibilities when they are gone.

The parent-to-be needs to be open about the amount of time that they would like to take off under parental leave, and feel able to be completely honest about their hopes and expectations, without fear of judgement. This is also a time to discuss what post-parental leave working may look like for them: it may be that consideration needs to be given to alternative ways of working, such as flexible hours or part time working. The parental leave period is an opportunity to trial different approaches.

The team can also be given a chance to express how they feel about the temporary loss of a colleague. It may be that they can redistribute the workload to account for their co-worker’s absence and that this may be more cost efficient and more productive than hiring a short term replacement.

The conversation about workloads and expectations throughout this period should be made an ongoing one: fortnightly check-ins with team members to ensure that workloads are not proving excessive will save time and money in the long run. If staff members feel demands being made on them are becoming unrealistic, these meetings will allow for adjustments to be made before the situation becomes unmanageable and the parent becomes the target of resentment.

This period of change is a great opportunity for managers. The absence of one or more team members is a valuable opportunity to assess other members of their team: to see who steps up to take on more responsibility. For those members of staff hoping for a promotion, it is the perfect time to try taking on more duties. It is a great opportunity to think differently, to focus on the outcomes that the role delivers not when and where it is performed. A variety of flexible solutions may be possible and job sites such as are a good place to start.

Finally, when the time comes for the co-worker to re-join the team, managers can make the transition as easy as possible by bringing them up to date on projects, developments and ensuring they are made to feel welcome. This is helped before they return fulltime by instating a ‘welcome back’ period, and making good use of their Keeping In Touch days.

Done right, parental leave can breathe new life into a workplace, test and demonstrate the organisation’s flexibility and agility all it takes is a little foresight and creativity.

By Kate Cooper, the head of research at the Institute of the Leadership & Management