21st April 2016

Paid Parental Leave: How to Ensure a Smooth Departure & Smooth Re-Entry

Ernst & Young (EY) is the latest company to take a stand for paid parental leave. EY announced this week that new mothers and fathers in the U.S. will now be eligible for up to 16 weeks of fully paid parental leave. The parental leave policy, starting July 1, 2016, is available to both men and women welcoming a child through birth, adoption, surrogacy, foster care or legal guardianship. EY also stated that the firm will provide generous benefits for fertility, surrogacy and adoption.

As the owner of my own consulting firm, I did not feel like I could completely disconnect to take a parental leave after the birth of my daughter. This, of course, was my ego talking. I had a great team in place who could support our clients while I was out.

But, my ego craved staying connected. So, I worked while my daughter napped. I took conference calls with her in my lap. I learned to type with one hand while I held her. Looking back on it now it was a frenetic time where I felt constant guilt and internal conflict torn between my new role as a mother and my need to keep my business thriving. But, the sleep deprivation (which, I think a lot of new parents will agree, is a very special and unique form of torture) only made my attempts to work more challenging. I was often uninspired. My work was sloppy.

The truth of the matter is that I did not allow myself the time to be present and experience fully the first few months of my daughter’s life.

This time is so important for parents for two reasons. First, it provides the opportunity for you to bond with your child and adjust to the newness of the physical, emotional, and mental demands of parenting. Secondly, for women, it provides the necessary time for your body to heal and recover. I did not fit back into my pre-pregnancy jeans for many months and the chronic sleep deprivation took a significant toll mentally and physically. I believe that having the time and space to focus on the needs of your child, your partner or significant other and yourself is essential.

Part of truly appreciating and valuing your time on paid parental leave is feeling prepared and clear. You want to feel that you’ve left the office having tied up loose ends, prepared your managers, team, or clients, and implemented systems that will work well until you return. Granted, we cannot always be fully prepared; sometimes a baby wants to come early or sometimes it’s recommended that you or your spouse spend the last several weeks working from home or on bed-rest.

As a mother, my best advice to you is prepare – and prepare early.

It’s important to prepare because as you get closer to the delivery date or adoption date your attention and focus will naturally be diverted to the exciting arrival of your child. If you are pregnant, your energy level might also begin to wane as your due date approaches. And by beginning early, you can take small, incremental steps each day to prepare for your departure which makes the entire transition process less stressful for everyone involved.

Having been on leave myself just a couple of years ago, here my top five strategies as you and/or your spouse prepare to go on parental leave:

Book a meeting with yourself the first morning you are back in the office. Granted, you won’t always know the date you’re leaving – and, consequently, the date you’re back. But, prepare yourself to spend this first morning getting back into the swing of things. Block the first morning and if possible the whole first day you are back in the office to collect, process and organize emails, return phone calls, connect with colleagues and get clear and current.

Review your project and task list. Focus solely on the “must be completed”, not the “like to” or “want to complete”. For all of the remaining projects and tasks, make a note of their status and then write down the next action step you need to take upon returning from leave. If you do this step before you leave, it will make for a much easier, smoother reentry. This is also a great time to start coaching and delegating – are there projects that you can delegate to someone else hungry for an opportunity who can sit second-chair until you leave? That way, when you’re out someone knows not only what’s going on now, but also what needs to happen while you’re out.

Determine contingency plans. Who will cover your key accounts? Who will be your point of contact on key projects? Can you provide an opportunity to a junior colleague to oversee an account while you are away? Who will be able to reach you in case of an emergency? Document this information in a list that you share with your colleagues. As well, include in your out of office email message a list of who should be contacted for each type of issue, concern or inquiry. You might also want to consider putting your out-of-office in your email signature prior to your departure. For example: Please note I will away from the office on parental leave from approximately May 1 – October 1 – and begin including this in your email signature starting April 1.

Communicate to your colleagues. Let them know the status of any projects that impact them and the respective contingency plans for each project. Also, let them know if you will be checking in while you are away and what your designated “office hours” will be while you are on leave. I hope your leave will be completely “unplugged”, and you’ll be able to spend time uninterrupted at home as the family gets to know each other, however I know that is not always possible.

Communicate to your clients, vendors and any other key stakeholders. Update them on the status of their projects and identify who is their point of contact while you are away. Let them know if you will be checking in while you are away and what your designated “office hours” will be while you are on leave. Or let them know who the right point of contact will be while you’re on leave.

Coming back from parental leave can be just as stressful as leaving as now you’re trying to manage a new routine with the family and you’re trying to re-orient yourself back into your work. Here are some of my go-to strategies to ensure a smooth re-entry following parental leave:

Get centered. Use that first hour – maybe even that first day – back in the office to get refocused. Review your calendar. Review your project list and determine the status of each project. Scan your inbox for any urgent or pressing issues. Then, prioritize the top three items you will focus on today. Don’t be afraid to take things day-by-day; there’s a lot going on, and you’ll have to be patient with yourself.

Capture fresh insights. New ideas and insights always strike when you’re away from it all and not necessarily thinking about work. This time is THE time when you’re getting clear very quickly on what’s important. So, while your brain is still fresh, ask yourself some honest questions about your tasks and to-do list. What activities have crept into your work day that do not produce a high return on time investment for you? What meetings are you attending where your presence is really not needed? What aspects of your work did no one miss while you were gone? In other words, take a look at those reports you keep generating that no one missed or even asked about while you were away, and think about how you can offer the information more effectively. Or, is this information really necessary.

Slowly and steadily get back into your work routine. Show your family photos, talk about how everything is going, and give yourself some grace upon reentry. Remember, the world didn’t collapse while you were away. When things start to feel overwhelming, identify specifically what is causing your overwhelm – is it the type of work, the intensity or focus required, the people involved, or the increased demands on you as a new parent. Once you identify specifically what needs to change, then focus on what you can control. Remember, you can only control yourself and how you respond.

Don’t worry so much about your email. Interestingly, what I experienced personally and what I’ve seen and heard from my clients who have gone on parental leave is that their inboxes are not as overwhelming as they thought they’d be. People quickly stop emailing you when they receive your out-of-office response. In today’s email culture, a lot of emails are sent to large distribution list emails that tend to be time sensitive, so, by the time you’re seeing it, it’s been resolved – so you can quickly delete these messages upon reentry. The magic here though is making sure you’ve prepared yourself and your inbox before going out; the sooner you start to communicate to colleagues, vendors, clients, and other key stakeholders, the more likely your inbox will be more manageable when you return.

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to yourself today – this week, this month – whatever it takes for you. This is a personal process, so how you come back will be different than how you’ve seen colleagues return. (Your approach might even be totally different than your spouse’s approach!) So, be kind; be gentle. Remember why you do what you do, and don’t be overly focused on getting things done. Graceful reentry can be a strategy that’ll take time versus an in-the-moment tactical approach.

As a parent and a business owner, I am thrilled that paid parental leave is becoming a reality for more employees in more companies and industries. What an incredibly dynamic shift we’ve made to our work culture!

However, I believe this is only the beginning of a much-needed, robust conversation that needs to take place now about work place flexibility and work-life harmony.

What do you think? I would love to hear from you.