Parental leave can become challenging for businesses when workers do not feel they can be open with their employer. A company that encourages parents to take leave by making policies accessible will find it easier to plan, says Danny Harmer, chief people officer of Aviva, the insurance company.

“You need to have an organisation where it’s OK to take the leave” so that employees “aren’t tiptoeing around” their line manager, she says. This is essential in an organisation like Aviva where, in 2020, according to Harmer, 99 per cent of eligible fathers took shared parental leave, with 84 per cent taking six months.

“People need to feel that they won’t be penalised,” says Claire McCartney, senior policy adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, a UK trade body. That entails more than just clear frameworks and policies — it requires trust and a culture that supports mothers and fathers to take time away from work.

During the pandemic, with many white-collar professionals working remotely, some organisations failed to build such confidence among employees. Daisy Dowling, US-based author of Workparent, says she has spoken to women who have been working from home and kept quiet about their pregnancy.

“The rationale I hear is ‘as soon as you announce you’re expecting you’ll be treated differently, so why would I lengthen the time I do that?’” she says. “There needs to be better messaging from organisations. If there’s a mutual distrust then both parties are disadvantaged.”

The UK introduced shared parental leave in 2015 but the move has not triggered a surge in men taking a longer time away from work. (Estimates are between one to 10 per cent of eligible parents taking it up.) In part, this is due to the complexity of the scheme and the fact that it means women have to give some of their leave away. In other countries, such as Norway and Sweden, partners have dedicated “use it or lose it” time off. But men’s reluctance may also be due to internal factors at their employer. A 2020 survey of working fathers by the consultants McKinsey found “having the right policy in place wasn’t sufficient if the work culture looked down on them for taking time off”.

In the US, some companies, notably streaming service Netflix, which offers both mothers and fathers up to the first year off, have made paid family leave a central plank of their benefits package. But there is still no federal maternity or paternity leave and its inclusion in the Build Back Better bill is proving to be a battle.

Yet the pandemic has encouraged many professionals to reconsider their working patterns. This year queries to the legal advice line run by Working Families about shared parental leave trebled compared with 2020, according to the charity’s chief executive, Jane van Zyl. Calls from men about paternity leave and childcare more than doubled in the same period.

“We are hearing from many more men than ever before: fathers wanting to know more about their paternity rights, men who’ve spent more time at home over the last 18 months and now want to flex their hours to play a bigger role in caring for their kids,” says van Zyl. “Employers need to realise that if you want to attract the best and most diverse talent to your organisation, you need to start seriously looking at your flexible and family-friendly policies for fathers and partners, as well as for women,” she adds.

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Christian Edelmann, co-head of Europe and managing partner at Oliver Wyman, the consultancy, has also observed a growing number of male employees wanting increased flexibility to do drop-offs and pick-ups. “Dads have enjoyed more family time and don’t want to give it up,” he says.

In response, the company is finalising plans for new flexibility and parental leave. Edelmann wants to encourage fathers to take leave, which he plans to do when his second child is born.

The pandemic has spurred many companies to enhance family-friendly policies in an effort to recruit and retain staff. A survey of 700 UK employers in a range of sectors by childcare provider Bright Horizons, found that 48 per cent of employers currently offer enhanced shared parental leave, up from 25 per cent in 2017.

In November 2020, Lego, the Danish toymaker, introduced a policy that all employees — no matter their location, position, or working hours — will get a minimum of 26 weeks paid childcare leave for the primary caregiver and eight weeks paid leave for the secondary caregiver. In addition, it announced two weeks paid leave to care for a family member. The company made central funding available to secure interim cover.

But staff absences are a vexed issue, particularly for smaller companies. Mike Cherry, chair of the Federation of Small Businesses, says that while small companies may be able to provide flexibility for parents, they often struggle to “offer their employees enhanced maternity pay where margins are particularly tight”. Additionally, in the UK, Cherry says, “the shared parental leave system can sometimes be complicated to navigate and administer, particularly for the smaller firms that have no HR support”.

Unlike sickness leave, or absences due to eldercare, maternity or paternity leave is easier to plan, says Harmer. “You know when they’re going on leave so the handover is simple.” Some expectant parents are also “really proactive” and “make suggestions” on how to cover their absence.

Matt Bridger, senior manager in the reward and employment practice at PwC, says his team has used the firm’s Graduate Business Programme to fill gaps. “There are challenges,” he concedes. “How much do you want to invest in someone if they are just there for three months? We [also] do specialised work and they need a lot more hand-holding,” he says. But, he adds, while young recruits do not have the “background knowledge of legislation or advising clients on similar cases”, they do “know the firm’s systems”.

Other options include placements from PwC’s Flexible Careers Network, a pool of external candidates who want short stints of work or flexible hours. Interim positions can be good too, adds Harmer, though companies must ensure their onboarding processes are effective.

Alternatively, a team can redistribute tasks or a junior member of the department will step up. Bridger says, “It gives them a good chance to demonstrate their skills.” And Dowling says that returnee programmes for men and women who have taken career breaks can be “brilliant parental leave covers”.

Some organisations are trying to have more nuanced conversations about parental leave with employees, Dowling says. “Historically you would go on leave, and it’s a blackout period. It’s a cold departure and a cold return. That can be hard on the employer and the parent. I’m seeing more ways of creating a more gradualised return,” she notes.

The rules vary according to country, but in the UK 10 keep-in-touch days could be structured so that employees have some involvement with projects as they ease back in. The flip side is that new parents could feel pressure to work: this depends on line managers being able to have sensitive conversations, says Dowling. Oliver Wyman assigns the parent taking leave a senior sponsor to oversee the transfer of commitments when they leave and on their return.

And while some employers have made inroads into supporting women returning to work after maternity leave, there is still some way to go for fathers, Bridger says. “There’s improvements to be made, especially as you stretch it out for longer periods, you need a return process,” he adds. Nonetheless, he enjoyed one workshop for new dads. “To have a group to have open conversations [with] was invaluable.”

Companies that are inflexible risk losing talent. As McCartney at the CIPD says: “The way you’re treated as an employee [becoming a parent] will have a big impact on your loyalty and desire to stay with the organisation in the longer term.”

Tell us what you think and join the discussion in the comments below this article.

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