Strategies for Supporting Working Parents
Strategies for Supporting Working Parents

The introduction of government measures such as paid parental leave and the right to request to work flexibly are slowly but surely providing opportunities for working parents to more easily equalise their work life balance. However, in addition to government measures there are plenty of simple, cost effective actions organisations can take to make life easier for working parents.

Daisy Wademan Dowling suggests the 10 ideas outlined below will help your organisation support working parents, which will have the knock on effect of boosting productivity and morale and improving retention rates among this employee cohort.

Start with the facts

Before launching any support programs for working parents, gather the relevant data: Where do parents sit within your organisation? What are their attrition patterns? What information can you gather from annual performance reviews or culture-survey data — or simply from informal conversations?

The answers, which should be the basis of your working parent programming, may not be in line with your expectations and may surprise you. The result: Better relationships between employees and managers, and a significant reduction in turnover. Finding the actual pain point, as opposed to the perceived or assumed one, is what leads to effective solutions.

Define the demographic

Most companies concentrate their efforts on “visible working parents” — e.g., new biological mothers — focusing all programming on lactation rooms and other relevant supports. While these are positive, laudable steps, they address the problem too narrowly. Working parenthood is an 18-year job, done by men and women, biological and adoptive, gay and straight parents, in all kinds of family structures. Aligning your organisation’s programs to this reality — for example, by encouraging all employees to use existing personal days for family care needs — better targets the issue in its broad-spectrum reality, and it sends a more inclusive message, too.

Acknowledge and foster peer-to-peer learning

When working parents need advice or motivation, they turn to the real experts: their respected colleagues and mentors, people they trust who understand the politics and culture inside the organisation. Providing basic guidance, even simple talking points, to these internal “peer coaches” enables them to deliver the right messages when it matters.

Become a market maker

Leverage your organisation’s existing infrastructure to connect working parents and to make practical aspects of parenting easier. Goldman Sachs’s “Help at Home” intranet bulletin board allows any employee to trade tips and leads on child care. Other companies use the same platform to let employees pass hand-me-down baby and child products to their colleagues. No intranet? A notice board in the cafeteria works just as well. The result: A more collaborative culture, and employees who spend less time worrying about and solving practical parenting problems.

Focus the resources you do have on key transition points

As in an Olympic relay race, working parenthood depends on the ability to successfully navigate transition points — the hand-offs, the turns. Coming back from leave, welcoming a second or third child, or accepting a change in role or schedule are just a few of the transition points that can derail or strain the most competent working parent employee. That’s why concentrating benefits and programming on these critical points can yield significant return on investment.

Johnson & Johnson permits mothers and fathers to use their parental leave on a phase-back basis, ensuring not only time out of office but also a gentler return transition. As Peter Fasolo, global head of HR, states: The company doesn’t “dictate how someone should slice up those weeks” of leave.

Other organisations offer counselling and support for parent employees who are changing roles or moving to a new office or region. Easing these pivot points can keep your employees more focused and engaged in the moment — and over the long haul.

Categorise communications

Ease the work-life strain and an “always on” culture by categorising communications, particularly ones sent outside business hours. Email headers such as: “Not urgent”; “For Monday”; “FYI Only”; “Urgent!” help working parents easily sort through what needs to be done ASAP and what can wait until after the ballet recital or the weekend.

Encouraging senior managers to do the same can make a huge impact in overall work-life balance perception, with no change in productivity.

Make vacation non-negotiable

Has every one of your people taken their allotted vacation in the past year? Does anyone have significant accumulated rollover days? Who — and why? How many of them are working parents? Type A professionals working in high-performance organisations often, even in the absence of direct pressure to do so, voluntarily bypass holidays and time off.

Among working parents, this practice is particularly dangerous, leading to burnout, family issues, performance decline, or attrition. Smart companies and managers develop ways to “signal” to their employees that it’s time to take a break. One organisation I know includes “vacation days taken” at the top of each employee’s performance review, prompting manager attention. Encouraging employees to draw down on existing benefits is easier and more powerful than adding additional “work-life” programs.

Set a visible example

No program or policy will be as effective in supporting and motivating working parent employees as the example of admired leaders who are balancing job and family. The manager who keeps current photos of children at her desk, who visibly leaves early once a month for the school play or soccer game, and who (occasionally) refers to the evening of homework-checking she faces — all while projecting an upbeat, can-do attitude about work — sends a powerful message: I can do this, and you can, too. Make certain you and the other managers in your organisation are modelling the behaviour and attitudes you want to see in others.

Encourage managers to get personal

Many managers shy away from personal conversation for fear of being inappropriate, and many employees, particularly in pressured environments, hesitate to discuss personal issues for fear of seeming unprofessional or unfocused. Yet in high-performance organisations where hours are long and teams are tight, “the job and your life become undistinguishable.”

Savvy managers can help employees nip many work-life issues in the bud and make their people feel supported simply by opening the door to new conversations — in an appropriate way. At performance review time, asking “Are there any other career concerns you want to discuss that I may not be aware of?” can effectively open the door. A simple “How were the kids this weekend?” telegraphs your care and lets employees know you have their backs. An employee who feels “whole” at work is less likely to look for other options.

Advertise resources already in place — and destigmatise their use

Many corporations already have significant employee resources already in place —employee assistance programs, counselling benefits, human resources staffers trained in coaching and employee support. Yet most employees don’t know they exist, don’t know how to access them, or are certain that access comes with professional consequence. Smart companies make existing benefits visible and accessible to all. Don’t just offer resources — help your people easily reach them.


These tips by Daisy Wademan Dowling  were originally published in Harvard Business Review