Courtesy Lauren Brody

I recently was introduced to Lauren Brody, a former executive editor of Glamour magazine and author of The Fifth Trimester. She’s an expert in creating workplaces where working mothers can thrive, and coaching parents to that end. Brody mentioned that there are parallels between the return to paid work by mothers after a parental leave and the return to the workplace that so many workers—whether parents of young children or not—are now on the cusp of. I followed up and asked her what we could learn from the best practices for the return to the office from parental leave.

Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited lightly for clarity:

What can we learn from the return from parental leave that's applicable to the broader return to workplace now?

This was a bit of an epiphany for me. At the very beginning of the lockdown, my business was entirely coaching and speaking to new moms and helping companies do a better job of retaining them and supporting them through the return to work post-baby. Initially I thought, 'Who's going to want to support this little piece of talent retention right now, when we have to think so much more broadly? It's not going to be important to people.' I thought I would have to pause that part of my business. Very quickly, I realized it was actually just the opposite. Instead of the return to paid work after babies—suddenly we were all in it.

Anyone who had elder-care obligations, an older child whose school was operating remotely, people who were taking care of their partners or spouses, people who were sick themselves. All of those FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] needs that people have suddenly were happening at a time that was not a new baby, but were happening very universally. The ways they were asking their employers to partner with them, to solve these problems, look shockingly similar to what I had seen brand new moms have to do urgently as they began their careers as working parents. Suddenly we were all in it together.

There are lots of things that businesses can do to help support that transition back to paid work. Many apply directly to what we're seeing with offices reopening, people having hybrid situations, and needing to still take care of family. For instance, kids who may not have their regular summer programs, but mom and dad are expected back in the office. It's a lot of negotiating around personal life needs, which can feel like the highest stakes possible at a time when we're all ready to work hard and get back into the groove of our new, hopefully exciting economy. It's very similar to what it feels like as a new parent coming back to work after being home on a family leave and needing to re-engage. We get to know people, get back up to speed, but do it in an entirely new and different way that probably will be ongoing. Some of it is transitional and some of these changes we're going to want to keep permanently. That all feels really similar.

Research shows that (unshockingly) one thing that helps with retaining women in times of transition (like after a parental leave, or coming back post pandemic) is if people feel valued for their contributions. That's not earth shattering, but it's something that can make a huge difference when used as a tool by managers, especially with groups of people, like parents, who might fret that they have underperformed using our old measures of time, dollars, and facetime. I encourage both managers and employees to rethink their measures of success in a more nuanced way. One practical approach is for managers to reward any retention-building work that employees did over the pandemic. They might not have worked the most hours, or brought in the most business, but did they take time to mentor someone? Did they participate in an ERG that makes the org a more attractive place to work? Did they make a useful introduction? These are highly valuable contributions that deserve to be acknowledged and rewarded.

What practices can organizations draw from the return from parental leave? What allows working parents to thrive?

On-ramping more than anything. And now that these fifth-trimester lessons are applying more broadly to people with older children, and different people in their families who aren't newborns—those people also need the on-ramping. So it's on-ramping for your employees, perhaps letting them operate at a reduced hours schedule or even reduced duties schedule without taking away pay. But it's also acknowledging that our children's caregivers need to on-ramp. Our kids themselves need to get used to being back in an educational environment, or back in a social environment with kids, if they're doing camps back out in the world.

There's a lot of adjusting that has to happen. Unfortunately, often the employee who you're talking about is kind of the last piece of that puzzle. They have to have on-ramp their caregiver, on-ramp their kids, before they can effectively dive 100% back into their work. So it's being patient with that transition, particularly with what's happened in the caregiving industry and the anticipated recovery of that industry. Whether that is one person in your home helping care for your family or a daycare center or some cobbling together of grandparents helping and partners, moms, dads taking different schedules at work—that has to happen first before the employee will be able to be totally fully engaged. So being a little patient—and that patience is also really reminiscent of what happens when people return to work after baby. However, what we also see about the return to paid work after baby is that people come back much more efficient, much more deliberate, much less likely to put up with things that are a waste of time and simultaneously do that in not a cold way, but actually a pretty nurturing way.

I resist the idea that a lot of people have that we shouldn't say that women are really wonderful nurturers and wonderful mentors and that that's somehow diminishing of women because it's a woman's skill. Screw that—women are awesome! If we're good at those things, those things have been shown to retain people. So if you feel some tenderness toward your employees or colleagues that perhaps you didn't before, because now you're very aware that they have a personal life in a way that you perhaps weren't before you saw all of it on Zoom for a whole year.—that's a good thing. We can use that openness and vulnerability to really make progress for each other and for our whole culture.

Could people return to the workplace more efficient than they left it?

Absolutely. More efficient, more deliberate. And this is going to sound negative and I don't intend for it to be—more able to be comfortable with their compromises. Like they're not wasting a lot of energy on feeling guilty and torn—there's just not time for that. You have to be really judicious about what you spend your energy on when so much of your energy is taken up by your family's needs as well as your paid work's needs. Some of it is borne out in research, some of it is just my own research with thousands of new working moms. But, yes, they tend to need less time pivoting between tasks.

So if you were to measure the time that you spend moving from one project to another project, that's much more compressed when they come back to paid work after having been on a maternity leave. A lot of people like to say that they're better able to say no. I think that that's true, but I also recognize the flip side of that, which is that they're better able to say yes in a really committed way. So if you have done the compromise math on, can I take this project on, can I stay late? Can I steal from this part of my life to serve another and you get to a yes, that's a really real yes. Because it's been actually really deliberately decided upon. So they may be better at saying no to the things that are beneath their pay grade.

But that's actually good, by the way, for the organization as well. Because then you have other people growing into them and they can keep moving up. But they're also better able to say yes to the things that they most want to take on, in a way that they carry through with. One thing that can be tricky about returning to paid work after baby, that I think we're going to see a lot of right now is that—particularly when we have not seen parents be supported by federal laws and cultural social structure to the degree that they really need to be—many of us have been operating in what I refer to as a defensive crouch. We've guarded resources, whether that means trying to not spend a lot of money or trying to be very protective of our mental health, our energy levels, our reserves of what we have.

And there's a scarcity mode that can be something that we need to overcome as we go through this transition back. Because when you look at who succeeds in their careers, who moves forward, it's people who are always willing to stretch a little bit and take a little bit more of a risk. The research shows that women are more hesitant to take risks than men are. There was that study that showed that men apply for jobs that they're only 40% qualified for. Whereas women have to tick off 100% of the job qualification boxes before they'll apply. So it's that kind of risk taking I'm talking about. It's stretching and going a little beyond. We have been so trained over the last 14 months to be protective of ourselves that we have to be very conscious of making an effort to take some more risks.

The way employers can foster that is simply by talking about it, by saying 'I know that we're going to come back and have to try things a little differently. Can we all guinea pig this together? I need you to tell me what's working, what's not working. I need you to tell me what you need in your life in order to be able to continue with your job. Because I can't read your mind and I'm also a person with a personal life who's just gone through a pandemic.' Really encourage that dialogue and conversation so that you're not having career development conversations once annually at your annual review that determines your bonus or whatever, but it's really much more of a continuing discussion.

One more similarity that we see to the return to work after baby is that very often those conversations and negotiations around like, 'Hey, how's this going to work? Long-term, what kind of flexibility do I need? What do I need to ask for? Am I doing more than my job description? Should I be paid more for that?' We're used to having those conversations at whatever pace our employer tells us. But when you engage in a negotiation that's not totally clear, that needs a little trial period, it actually sets up a really good pattern of constant career conversations. Every conversation can have a little element of 'Because I want to try these things...Because I want to grow...Because that's not a good use of my time...Because I see somebody else wanting to grow into this thing that I've been doing for too long, and I want to stretch and do something else.' You can have more of those conversations in an ongoing and developmental way than you have before. For a lot of new parents, it's the first time they thought that way. For a lot of new parents, it's the first time they've had to negotiate anything. This is an inflection point, in that early mid-career or mid-career where you're trying to decide 'Am I all in on this? Am I wanting to pivot a little bit?' This is probably going to be true for a lot of parents who have been primary earners in their family and have not been as actively involved in their family lives, as they've had to deal with this past year—they're going to be negotiating this stuff for the first time.

That comes with a lot of pressure and it's pretty loaded. So whatever employers can do to welcome those conversations, to say that they want it to be a learning and growing opportunity for both sides is really useful. The other best practice that's really tied to that is that you cannot have policies and attempts at cultural improvements happen only from the top down. Particularly what I see in law firms where it's super measurable how many moms have left their law firm job by the time they're ready to make partner. A couple of years ago, 48% of New York City associates in Big Law were women.

And 13% of partners were. So what you see is that with all best intentions and efforts, they will take those surviving women, moms, and certainly the dads who are dad-forward about their dad-hood in their law firm and they will say, 'Hey, what can we do for the junior partners? For the second and third and fourth years who are trying to climb, what can we do for them?' If the only people in the room are the survivors, the people who actually made it to that 13% then that's an additional burden on them when they're already doing a very hard job and doing it as somebody who is underrepresented.

They're having to doubly prove themselves. But they're also having to take time to bring along these other people, which they may or may not have positive feelings about. There may be some sort of jealousy of an experience that they didn't get to have. Even if they have the best intentions, they're not totally clued into the actual struggles of what's happening. That's going to keep these people from achieving their potential, who are at this lower level because all of the survivors had something working in their favor. You can take all of this and just airlift it right onto what's happening post pandemic. They all had something working in their favor that made it okay.

So in the pandemic they may have had a partner or spouse who did not do paid work and therefore could take over everything that needed to happen with the home during the year. They may not have had to dial back quite as far as some other people have had to. They may be somebody who is paid at a higher level and is better able to afford great mental health care and additional domestic help and the things that they need to make their life more manageable so that they can do, their work at a higher level. They may just be somebody who is extremely crazy brilliant, talented, or someone who just biologically only needs four hours of sleep every night. Those people do exist. There's not a lot of them, but I bet if you measured how much sleep the people at the very top of the game of these very competitive fields need, it's probably less than like most humans.

But that doesn't mean that the second or third or fourth year associate doesn't have potential to grow into amazing work, doesn't have relationships that could bring in incredible business. Doesn't have a brain that can really think big picture. If you lose them because you're only making plans that are dictated by the very well-intended people at the top, then you'll never be able to realize what they could have brought. When you make policy shifts, when you make cultural changes, it's about having all levels in the room.

Usually one-on-one mentorship programs have somebody senior and somebody junior, and it's helpful obviously to have a relationship and to have a sponsor and an advocate. But I think it can work much more effectively to have triangles of mentorship, where you have people at three different levels sharing experiences, sharing what's worked in their personal lives, sharing what's worked for their careers. The valve goes both ways in terms of who's receiving the information, the flow of information.

And then the childcare thing is the other biggest piece of it. It is the biggest obstacle for most families and they want to do it right. They want to make sure their kids are okay. And parents aren't going to work effectively if they don't feel like their kids are okay. That applies to whether they're going back into the school system or they're trying to rehire help in their home that's different than what they needed a year and a half ago, or trying to support and be comfortable with a daycare that perhaps had everybody laid off and now has to rehire, without the amount of funding and bailout that they needed.

To your point earlier about having to negotiate for yourself as a returning employee, how do you best advocate for your own needs if your company's policies don't meet them for return to workplace?

The exact formula that works is to do your research both internally and externally. Look at what precedent has been set internally within your organization, which very often will set up some sort of precede. They've offered something to someone they don't want to not offer to you for fear that you'd say, 'Well, why are you prejudiced against me? Why are you discriminating against me?' So if there's precedent, that's a good thing to know. It's not often something that gets talked about because, at least in the past, very often people were told, 'Hey, we're going to let you work from home on Tuesdays, but don't tell anybody.' It just sets up this crazy situation where someone is out every Tuesday and just seems incredibly unreliable because they aren't able to be transparent about that.

So do your research internally and externally. Internally is about sorting out what policies exist, because there is research that also shows that people don't always know what policies exist, the fine print where you have to really go dig to find it. Then the softer skills research into what precedent has been set similar to my situation where somebody else was able to do something and how it worked out for them. Then also do the external research into what else is happening in your region, and what is happening in your field. What else is happening at your number one competitor? You can either make the case—if you're falling behind comparatively—that, 'Hey, we need to catch up in order to retain and recruit and promote people from within.'

Or you can make the case that, 'Hey, we're a leader here and we want to maintain this.' So just having that sense, whether you actually present the research to the person you're trying to negotiate with, or you just internalize it, which is also incredibly valuable to at least know where you stand going in. Then when you go in, come with an ask, but a plan and really come with at least one or two plans. You should know exactly what is in your job description, which I realize sounds so office-speaky. HR has a job description for you, or could come up with one. And chances are you probably do much more than what's in that job description because you've probably been in your job longer than one day. You grow and you do adapt and change.

So know what's in it and make sure that whatever plan you propose fulfills that job description, and in a perfect world probably exceeds it a little bit. That doesn't mean necessarily that you're working more hours. You may even be working fewer hours. But if you are still satisfying those duties, whatever you propose just needs to make sure you're getting your job done. If you're getting your job done, then you can propose the way in which you'd like to be able to do it. You should anticipate what their hesitation is going to be. You should anticipate the impact that it might have on your colleagues and what sort of work arounds there could be for that. You should anticipate if the person sitting across the Zoom or across the desk from you, who you're negotiating with, has someone they have to take this plan to.

Give them a couple of different options, but make sure it's not an ask. It's really a plan and then offer to try it, offer a trial period. They're not signing in blood. They're not setting new precedent necessarily. Everybody's big fear is if I let you do this, I'm going to have to let everybody. Say, 'Let's just try it. Let's try it for a week. Let's try it for two weeks. I will be a guinea pig for you. I will report back and tell you what's working an what's not working. And if it's a success, then we can use this as a model. And I will contribute time and energy to helping scale this at a bigger level that will make it a sustainable new best practice for our organization.' That really works, if you go through all of that work. Some of it is really internal, it's kind of convincing yourself. And some of it is thinking in a very managing-up fashion of what do I need to give this person to be able to say yes. And more often than not, it works.

What are the creative things that companies are doing to support caregiving and keep working moms in the workforce? We saw some benefits aimed at that pop up during the pandemic—will they be lasting? And which are the most important ones to maintain?

The very simplest thing that any organization can do is give their employees a caregiver stipend, because there is no bias baked into it. Because every family has its own circumstances, in terms of what amount of income, if it's a two-partner home and they're both working, what amount of income they're both bringing in, who has family close by, who has perhaps kept a nanny employed this whole time. They're going to want the flexibility and the agency to be able to decide how to use that. Early on in the pandemic, if you gave somebody a thousand dollars a month, they might have, flown grandma in and put her up in an Airbnb for 14 days so she could quarantine and then join their family. And that would have been more valuable to them than being told 'Well, we have in-house daycare now.' I'm not sure at that point you would have wanted to use that daycare.

So it's just really more than anything giving employees agency to use a childcare stipend. Then there's all kinds of other ways that you can support people's need for good caregiving. If you have them traveling, ask them what they need. Milk Stork is an amazing company that will ship breast milk for moms who are traveling. If it's valuable enough for somebody to get on a plane right now and travel across the country to go have a client meeting, it's probably worth an additional $350 for you to buy them the companion ticket so that they can have a partner or a caregiver travel with them so that they can have their young child with them at the same time. These are investments that really pay off. So as we're doing the math on what's worth having people stretch to do, stretch 1% more to increase your budget and it will pay off in retention.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.