I was fortunate enough on episode 5 of the Tech Bitch Podcast to have an amazing discussion with Kate Rotondo of the Motherboard podcast. Kate and I had an amazing discussion about how many companies, especially tech startups, are not set up for new mothers.
Kate shared her horror stories of returning to work from maternity leave. We discussed ways that companies could help address new mother challenges, like where to pump milk. I interviewed Kate around the same time that I had colleagues returning from their maternity leave. As I listened to their challenges, it struck me that setting women up for success when they return from maternity leave is an important way companies can show that they truly care about their employees.
New mothers are challenged by a multitude of inherent stresses. Most new parents are sleep deprived and trying to get their baby on a schedule. That’s stressful enough without having to then deal with professional stresses. Here are the three key initiatives that companies can implement to ease the burden for new mothers returning to work.
1. Ramp up slowly
You know when you take a vacation and there are hundreds of emails when you get back? Imagine you took 4 or more weeks of vacation and you didn’t check your messages. Some people may have CCed you, others not. There’s probably more than a thousand messages waiting for you. Many may be junk or internal communications on issues that are resolved or where the deadline has passed. When either parent returns after leave, ramping back up slowly is the key to ensuring that the stress of returning is manageable.
Companies can put together a re-onboardig process. In the same way that new employees are afforded the time and space to get acclimated to the company culture, its important to understand that many things have likely changed in the time a person is out of the office, so having a process to address company changes and initiatives with management as well as individual team members is a way to bring a returning employee up to speed. Schedule these meetings ahead of time so that they are reserved on everyone’s schedule. Additionally, don’t schedule any work meetings the first two days so that the employee may have admin days to go through their emails and get caught up.
2. Flexible schedule
If it’s available to new parents, going part-time would be the best way to ease back into the work. While companies may be excited to have someone return, loading a new parent back up with a full workload while they are trying to figure out a full-time schedule with a new human causes a tremendous amount of stress.
If working remote is available, that’s ideal for a new mother. But even if working remotely is unavailable, maintaining a flexible schedule is important. It’s tough to get into a new schedule and rhythm with children and as Kate pointed out, you never know if you’ll need to address your own medical needs or the health and developmental skills of your child. Having flexibility in the schedule allows for new parents to feel supported and to take the time they need.
3. A Dedicated Mother’s room
All offices should have a room dedicated to mothers at the bare minimum. This room needs to have no windows or be able to be completely sealed off from the rest of the office with privacy that includes a lockable door. Making this room bookable by only mother’s would be ideal. If space is an absolute premium, having a dedicated room and adding the words “Mother’s Room” to the name illustrates to everyone that this room should be booked last.
But having a room is the minimum. Setting that room up for new mothers means having an industrial grade pump installed in the room and a refrigerator to keep the milk that is separate from the rest of the office. This is extremely important in tech where snacks are provided and it’s not uncommon for thoughtless coworkers to eat other people’s food.
In the episode, I shared how I worked in a dog-friendly office where my canine companion came into work with me everyday. I used to make her food and would feed her lunch everyday with the rest of the team would sit down to our catered lunch. One day, I opened up the fridge and noticed that there was a large portion of her food missing. A hungry coworker decided to take some of the chicken and veggies food I had prepared for the dog. Having food eaten by colleagues is not uncommon, which is why having a separate refrigerator for the baby’s milk and personal pump equipment to be stored is ideal.
As Kate pointed out in the episode, milk production is very fickle, so making the room more comfortable for women to view videos or pictures of their baby and destress enough to produce milk is very important.
A final word on inclusive caregiver policies. It’s important for companies to address all caregivers returning to work. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects a worker’s right to caregiving, it doesn’t define paid leave policies or successful ways to bring folks back to work. Not all caregivers are women and not all mothers have given birth. It’s important to have a policy that encourages men, women, birth parents or adopted parents to get the same leave and be encouraged to take it.
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