How companies equip employees to on-ramp and off-ramp from their work—whether because they just had a baby or have to take time off to care for a loved one—is still a source of much public debate.
Recent research indicates that the number of U.S. companies that offer partially paid maternity leave has increased over the past decade, from 46% to 58%. Studies also show, however, that the number of women who actually take maternity leave has been stagnant over the past 20 years. But it’s not just having a baby that causes workers to take time off; nearly one in four Americans has taken leave from work to care for a family member with a serious health condition.
“Off-ramps without on-ramps create dead-end roads for millions of people, the talent pipeline, and the economy as a whole,” says Addie Swartz, the CEO of reacHire, a company that partners with businesses to establish return-to-work programs for professional women.
Swartz adds that without a formal on-ramp, many companies are missing out on a talented pool of highly educated and experienced workers, women in particular: “Ignoring this talent hiding in plain sight is a huge missed opportunity for companies.”
Preparing to go on leave? Some tips for managers and employees
Workplace collaboration and communication tools can be a boon for employees returning to their careers after some time away. But Swartz says that planning for back-to-work transitions should actually begin before the person leaves.
For one thing, she emphasizes, workers need to think carefully about whether they want to maintain an open line of communication with employers while away. Although some people may benefit from monthly “touch base” calls or in-person meetings with a manager to stay informed about company development and new opportunities, others may well prefer no contact at all until they’ve returned.
“Whatever your choice, be sure to make your desire clear to your employer so there is no guessing about what you want—even if it changes along the way,” she says.
Embracing a new way to work: how Slack helps employees get up to speed after a leave
A lot of people say that balancing a career and family obligations can feel like the equivalent of two full-time jobs. Jennifer Spector, the director of brand marketing at Zola, a wedding planning and registry company, knows the feeling. She returned to work in October after giving birth to a baby girl in June. “It was really jarring going from working hard at Zola every day to suddenly working hard at home caring for a new baby,” she says.
Like Spector, new parents navigating this transition can be in for a shock, especially when you factor in concerns about staying on top of work before leave and diving back in after several weeks or months off. She says one thing that helped smooth this tricky time in her life was Slack.
“Slack actually helps because I am not always on. There are times I am available and times that I am not, and it allows me to set those boundaries without being a bottleneck or leaving anyone hanging.”
In Slack, team and project work is organized into channels, which means all the history—every discussion and document—is compiled in one convenient place. At Zola, channels are organized by workgroup and cross-functionally by project. Teams also use Slack to communicate with outside agencies and vendors.
Because all these projects and conversations are captured in dedicated channels, Spector says Slack has allowed her to stay on top of work and easily pull back from it while on leave. She even used it to prepare her team months in advance of her departure.
“We set goals for what would happen while I was out, changed the reporting structure, and redistributed work so that people weren’t being handed projects abruptly,” she says. “Slack helped with this immensely, because I could include people in specific channels so they could get acquainted with the work before they were responsible for taking it over.”
Her advice to those making the back-to-work transition is simple: Reconnect with colleagues, ask for relevant strategy documents to get up to speed, and read up on Slack messages so you don’t feel overwhelmed on your first day.
“My team knows that I have to leave at a certain time but then will be back online after I put my daughter to bed to continue the conversation,” Spector says. “Slack actually helps because I am not always on. There are times I am available and times that I am not, and it allows me to set those boundaries without being a bottleneck or leaving anyone hanging.”
But it’s also crucial to embrace the period you’re in now, she adds, whether you’ve just had a baby or had to take time off to care for a loved one.
“Appreciate the life moment you just went through, and understand that coming back to work won’t feel exactly the same as when you left,” she says. “And that’s OK.”