Most colleagues I know face their maternity leave like I did: with excitement and, let’s admit it, anxiety. What will happen when I return? Will my job still be the same? Will there be reorg? What will happen to my performance trajectory? Who will cover my role while I’m away?
Most progressive companies, like my employer Google, pride themselves on a generous maternity leave package including flexible bonding time, lactation consulting reimbursements and care packages when the baby arrives. These well-intended benefits are no doubt a step in the right direction, and Google has been a leader in these efforts, setting a high bar. But as a marketer who thinks often about user experience, I would like to push us to go further and think about the end-to-end user journey for maternity leave.
After returning from maternity leave #3 at Google, this was waiting on my desk upon my return. Having a support system in place was critical during this transition period.
Help us help you
A nice benefits package doesn’t always equal a great experience. Do user research: Ask parents who just went through leave what can be improved. How did it feel? What can we, as a company, do to support you before and after leave? And how can we do better? Identify pain points and crowdsource solutions.
Reward those who step in to pinch hit
Make it easier for employees to take on temporary assignments with a safety net. Most parents are tasked with finding their interim replacement -- likely a temporary contractor or internal candidate looking to try something new. Having been on both sides of this tango dance, I can say from experience that it’s not easy to find someone to cover these assignments, and there is often no incentive to taking on the coverage roles. Most expecting parents find it overwhelming and stressful. Or, in many smaller companies, employees are tasked with covering additional roles on top of their own. Incentivize them. Reward them. Thank them.
Focus on re-entry
Coming back to work after having a baby feels a bit like walking into a loud party where everyone else is having a good time and all you have energy for is half a drink and saying hello before you want home and bed. Provide support/coaching, gradual re-entry and train managers on how to support re-entry. Encourage employees to ease back in by starting in the middle of the week and coming back a percentage of time for the first month. It’s a critical period where many parents feel overwhelmed and awkward. Support from the top is crucial.
Whether you are going on leave or covering for someone on leave, keep an open mind. Not 100% happy in your current role? Look for a new role when you return. Or design your dream role and pitch it. Now is the time. Looking to try something new? I’ve personally covered for two mat leaves and I’ve learned skills and had experiences I would have never learned if I stayed in my comfort zone. Take those new skills and relationships and figure out how you can come out of those coverage roles happy. It can be a rewarding experience if the company is willing to understand and prioritize the value.
Find a support system at work (coach, friend or mentor) when you return
Not everyone has been in your shoes. They don’t know that you are barely sleeping, can hardly form a thoughtful sentence and have no time to eat between pumping sessions. You need to find someone who will be in your corner those first 6 months back, besides your coffee mug. If it’s not your manager, find someone else. STAT.
Take care of yourself
Before you leave, plan months in advance and delegate ruthlessly. Working on your coverage plan will take a huge weight off your shoulder, and it’s never too early to start. Be very clear when you want to be contacted when you are on leave. I personally wanted to check in with my manager 2-3 times while I was out so I could prepare for returning. When you return, don’t let your calendar manage you. Own your calendar #likeaboss. Block off time even if you don’t think you need it. Say no.
By thinking about the user experience of maternity leave, we can design a program that benefits both employees and companies. Employees can use the opportunity to grow, pivot or learn. Companies can benefit from cultivating talent and getting fresh eyes on business challenges. And while mat leave is never easy for the person taking the leave or for the company, we can face it together with empathy and a commitment to continue to improve.
Carrie Beth Wood
Sr. Marketing Manager at Google, indoctrinated New Yorker, mom of 3