How to Support Working Parents
Illustration by Tiffany Beucher

It’s true when people say that having children completely changes your world — including your work life, and all of the components that go along with it.

I’ve been fortunate to work remotely at Help Scout for four years on our Customers Team, with some of the smartest and kindest people I’ve ever met. From the moment I told my team I was pregnant with my first child, I had their complete and total support (and the company as a whole) to do what I needed to in order to feel like I could still do my best work. Without their backing and encouragement, it would have been difficult to create the positive work-life balance that I enjoy today.

Not everyone is fortunate to have such a supportive atmosphere in their workplace, though. Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University, found that after parents returned from parental leave, they’d default to being “secretive” about their children and home life. They did this not because they wanted to, but they feared that discussing their family life in the workplace could jeopardize their job or how seriously they were taken.

Why pretend kids are of ‘little importance’? When work and parenting seem at odds — because our culture tells us they’re at odds — mothers and fathers feel forced to demonstrate their commitment to one (the work side) by minimizing their concern for the other (the parenting side).

But work and family don’t have to be at odds with one another — they can coexist harmoniously, and it starts with the workplace making a conscious choice to care for parents.

4 ways to support parents in the workplace

When companies choose to care for parents within their work lives, it creates a culture wherein working parents feel their entire self is valued — not just the part they bring to work with them, but the self that extends to their partners, children, and family members at home. Encouraging team members to bring their whole selves to work leads to greater employee satisfaction, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what higher employee satisfaction does for the bottom line.

Here are some ways to create healthy and nurturing environments for the working parents on your team.

1. Offer paid parental leave

Depending on where you live and work in the world, this may or may not apply — but U.S. companies should recognize that paid parental leave is integral to creating a safe space in the workplace. Parental leave policies show that as a company, you not only care for the employee, but that you also care for their family. There is a lot of research showing the benefits that paid parental leave can have on parents as well as children:

  • Mothers are able to breastfeed for longer, and their babies are more likely to receive consistent medical care (since parents can take them to appointments).

  • Mothers experience improved mental and physical wellbeing when given time to recover from childbirth.

  • Working parents experience lower stress and pressure regarding finances due to job/financial security.

What’s apparently less obvious, however — given how few American companies offer decent parental leave benefits — is that offering employees paid parental leave gives your business a significant advantage as well:

One key to ensuring paid parental leave is done well is to eliminate any assumptions about how families should look. Help Scout recently introduced 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all new parents, including adoption and foster care. Our goal is to support and enable parents regardless of their gender, so they can play equal roles in nurturing their families. Traditional policies often dictate that the parent who gave birth is the primary care-giver, but that isn’t the case with all families. Putting aside traditional beliefs or assumptions means that parents are able to focus on what works best for their family.

Having been through parental leave twice, I can say that thinking through how to transition parents back into work after parental leave is hugely important, and key to their success. I benefited from email updates or “check-in” days so I could gradually catch up on work — that way the transition back to work wasn’t drastic or difficult.

The Harvard Business Review finds that in order to ensure parental leave doesn’t damage anyone’s career, an open dialog is crucial. This should begin before the parent goes on leave, “… and include how to approach leave, the individual’s communication preferences while on leave, and the return phase. Make a specific plan for handovers at the start and the end of the leave.” Setting a clear path and goals for the parent will help them feel less alienated and more confident in their first few days (and weeks!) back at work.

2. Build family-friendliness into your company culture

Giving parents the opportunity to celebrate and take care of their family is important in creating a company culture that leads to a sense of belonging for working parents. At Help Scout, we do this in a variety of ways, starting with giving everyone the opportunity to have flexible time off — including days off for physical or mental health. This gives team members the chance to take time off as they need to, and particularly comes in handy when they have children who are home for school holidays, or when they’re home sick.

Each year, we give employees a surprise summer day off (or winter if they’re in the Southern Hemisphere!) to encourage the team to get out and do something fun — and to include their partners and children in the excitement too!

Our family-centered Slack channel, called #cubscouts, is where folks can share photos or stories of their little ones (including nieces, nephews, cousins, etc). It’s fun to read through the funny stories the team share about their kids, while others ask for advice, or share helpful articles. It’s a safe place to talk about all things little people-related.

Many other remote companies are also following suit in promoting family-friendliness, such as Cliniko, where they realized that including families led to less employee turnover:

If (the partners) feel connected to the people in that company, they like the company, (and) they feel like the company does right by you, (it’s) a lot less likely that person’s going to leave.

3. Create a safe space for working parents

If your company shares a brick-and-mortar office, creating a place where parents feel comfortable talking about their kids is important too. Team leads and managers can lead this effort by putting up photos of their families, or even their kids’ drawings — modeling for other team members that they’re welcome to do the same. Studies show that being able to personalize your workspace positively impacts productivity, and being able to display special effects (such as family photos) causes employees to connect with one another, and “form successful work groups that are productive, content and able to work together.”

Having a designated breast-pumping area is also essential in including parents in the workplace. The Washington Post found that some breastfeeding parents in the U.S. are subjected to spaces without a working lock to pump — or if they are private, they’re in storage rooms or the bathroom. Yet it is required by law to provide a functional and private space for pumping. In a world where working mothers already face stigmatization and are less likely to excel in the workplace after having children, not having a place to pump can decrease their productivity and overall physical and emotional well-being. Taking the necessary steps to ensure that nursing parents are well cared for will have a lasting and profound impact on them and their dedication to the company.

4. Two words: remote work

If your company operates remotely, you’re already in a better position to support working parents. Working from home offers so many advantages to those who are raising children. In How Remote Work Makes It Easier to Balance Family and Career, Nicole Swift of Litmus reflects on how impactful it can on one’s family to be able to have the flexibility of working remotely:

From slowly easing my daughter into daycare to pumping in the comfort of my own home, remote work helped make a tough transition much more bearable and in turn made me all the more grateful and eager to contribute to the Litmus culture.

I found the same to be true as I transitioned back to work each time after having both of my kids, but I always had the support of my team to do what I needed to do at home in order to do my best work. This could mean taking more breaks throughout the day to take our youngest for a walk, or to take them to activities like a play date. Brenna Loury of Doist encourages employees to work around the hours that work best for them and their family in her guide, The Remote Working Parent’s Survival Guide.

Since I’m based in Australia, I changed over to a 6 a.m.- 2 p.m. schedule a few years ago, and it made a tremendous shift in my life. I was able to get a ton of work done while my teammates were still online and my kids were sleeping. It also meant my afternoons were free to spend with my family to go for walks, get errands done, and have a buffer before the dinner and bedtime routine started. Several of my teammates in Australia also start their days early to be able to have the afternoons free with their families. It gives us the flexibility to do all of the “parent life” tasks without having to dash out of the office early, and also deal with as little commuting as possible.

A parent-friendly workplace benefits everyone

With so much focus on diversity and inclusion efforts right now (including what we’re doing here at Help Scout!), it’s important to include parents and caregivers in that conversation. Parents are an integral part of the D&I movement, and creating a secure and safe place for them to do their best work will naturally cause them to excel. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming evidence to support the business case for it, not enough companies have made this vital shift toward inclusivity for parents.

Creating an environment where parents are supported and cared for allows your business to compete for top talent.

At the end of the day, a person’s personal/family life is what’s most important, so if that piece of their world can be nurtured in the workplace, it will make all the difference in their growth as a worker and as a person, and their devotion to the company that cares for them.

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