Making return-to-work plans for your office? Look toward parental leave for guidance

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If you’re in the midst of planning your workforce’s return to the office after a period of social distancing, you’re probably looking for models to draw on. Though we’ve never been through a return to work situation of COVID-proportions before, employers and employees have in fact been navigating returns to work for decades in the form of parental and other family leave.

Certain things about this pandemic return will inevitably be different from what we’ve practiced in the past — after all, new parents don’t have to return to the office wearing face masks. Employers should, however, draw on lessons learned from successful parental leave reintegration experiences.

Here are some practical steps both employers and managers can take to help their employees transition back to the office during this pandemic, drawn from our experience at Mindful Return helping thousands of new parents through their back-to-work transitions:

View the return as a process, and not a single event. I always encourage new parents to think of the return as a year-long process, not a single event. Given how this pandemic is shaking out, this type of long view will be important for COVID-19-era returns as well. With reintegration efforts, managers and leaders should plan monthly reintegration-related check-ins to determine whether everyone is on the same page about the reintegration process. This allows for open lines of communication and raises issues where adjustments may be required.

Keep mental health in mind — life just turned upside down. New parents often report feeling extremely disoriented when they go back to work after parental leave. For them, their entire world has changed, though colleagues may simply assume they are back to business as usual. With COVID-19, employers and managers should keep in mind that we have all experienced a collective trauma — one that likely won’t be over by the time employees return to the office.

Offer as much flexibility as you can muster. You’ve likely been offering immense amounts of flexibility to employees as they work from home during COVID-19, but this flexibility shouldn’t stop when the office doors re-open. With new parents, the logistics of daycare drop off and breastfeeding can be challenging. In the current crisis, it very well may be that a significant portion of your workforce will have no childcare options and will need to continue to work remotely for some time. In addition to school closures through the end of this academic year, summer camps are still in question, and the availability of childcare may be down by as much as 20%.

Don’t make assumptions about what your employees can and can’t do. Managers often assume a new mother won’t want to travel without even asking her about her own preferences. Such assumptions can do more harm than good to an employee’s confidence and career path. Explore all options with employees before assuming what work they will or won’t be able to take on during this COVID-19 return.

Engage your employee resource groups to identify concerns. The first place many HR departments go to determine the top concerns of new parent employees is to the organization’s parent ERG or affinity group, if there is one. During the COVID-19 return, leaders should engage with their employee groups to take the pulse of their employee populations – particularly those who have diverse and specific needs. To the extent such groups are missing, now may very well be the perfect time to get them off the ground.

Offer back-up care benefits. Before COVID-19, back-up care was often cited as one of the family-friendly benefits parent employees valued most. Babies in childcare tend to get sick a fair amount in their first years, child care centers take vacation weeks, and life can be unpredictable. Helping new parent employees through these challenges helps them focus on work and reduces absenteeism. Now, during the pandemic, back-up care benefits have been of less value to many employees, given social-distancing requirements that don’t allow employees to bring back-up caregivers into their homes. As social distancing restrictions ease up, though, back-up care benefits will be more important than ever.

Expect bumps, and believe in your employees for the long haul. All reintegration periods have their ups and downs. Just as new parents have good days and bad days, everyone living through COVID-19 has good days and bad days. There will be obstacles we don’t anticipate, and that’s okay. The key is to believe in your colleagues for the long haul, and they will emerge from this pandemic as amazingly dedicated employees.

The COVID-19 return will be about much more than logistics; there’s a critical human element to consider. If you’re a manager or employer, I’d challenge you to use these new parent reintegration lessons to develop thoughtful and intentional reintegration strategies for your employees. Here’s to retaining top talent in a compassionate way, as we navigate this return.

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