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  1. Blog
  2. Return to Work

7 Tips for Creating Effective Return-to-Work Policies for Women

Plus, how women can advocate for better support

Mom and daughter
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Borba
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What if you could return to work after taking care of a child or an extended leave of absence on your own terms?

Sure, there would still be return-to-work policies you would need to follow, but ultimately, you would have more autonomy over what your return would look like. Sounds pretty awesome, right?

Of course it does! But the reality is that many women are still looking for the right opportunity to have more control over their transition back to work after childbirth or a long career break. In fact, in a recent InHerSight survey, women told us that, of the most common employer-provided family growth support benefits, help returning to work is the second-most important to them, only after schedule and flexibility benefits like paid parental leave and flexible work hours, which have long been prioritized by working moms. 

Let’s explore what return-to-work policies and programs are and how they can be more effective at supporting women. 

What is a return-to-work policy? 

You’ve probably heard “return-to-work” a lot recently, and as more women head back into the workforce after leaving jobs during the pandemic, you’ll likely start hearing more about how return-to-work policies need to be improved. Although these policies have long existed, traditionally, they have focused on getting employees back to work after an injury or illness. The COVID-19 pandemic has given both employers and employees a reason to talk about return-to-work policies and programs beyond short-term injuries or illnesses.

Recently, this conversation has largely revolved around women who are debating whether they should return to the office after working remotely due to the pandemic. Not to be confused with return-to-work, return-to-office is a company’s plan to have remote employees resume in-person work. Return-to-work, on the other hand, speaks to employees who are resuming their careers after an extended period of time away, which could range from six months to several years. 

Understandably, many women feel anxious about returning to work as new moms or caretakers. 

Kristine Knutter, Founder of Express to Impress, says that allowing employees to return to work in stages could help reduce that anxiety. “While I was ready to return to work sooner than I expected after having my child, I certainly wasn't ready to return to work full time. Most women don't have that option; it's all or nothing.” In fact, some return-to-work policies have become stricter in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing many women to choose between returning to full-time onsite work or looking for a new job with the flexibility that benefits their families. 

On paper, most return-to-work policies include several basic elements, such as:

  • A section that outlines the purpose of the policy

  • Who the policy pertains to/eligibility 

  • An explanation of how work assignments will be modified or reassigned

  • Requirements or guidelines that eligible employees must adhere to

While these basic elements are important, they must evolve with the changing needs of employees. This means that, going forward, these policies must also consider new moms, caretakers, and guardians who would benefit from a more conscious employer response and a culture that no longer prioritizes workplace matters over family matters. 

Getting moms back to work: Creating more effective return-to-work policies for women

It’s easy to talk about getting women back to work, but the real change has to be reflected at the policy level within each company or organization. Knutter, who has professionally coached many women who have taken time from work to care for their children, understands the need for more effective return-to-work policies on a personal level as well. “I'm gradually returning to work while caring for my 5-month-old. Finally, I've seen the challenges my coworkers faced returning to work from maternity leave when working in the business environment.”  

The challenges that Knutter is referring to, which often include adjusting to a new schedule and balancing work demands with the baby’s needs, are common to so many working moms nationally (and in some cases, globally). Here are some tips for creating more effective return-to-work policies:

1. Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach 

Creating one return-to-work policy for all employees is probably more convenient, but it’s certainly not more effective. Instead, employers should focus on creating policies that are flexible enough to meet the unique needs and challenges of employees. Every woman will have their own reasons for needing a four-day work week, split shift, flextime, or some other adjustment to their schedules, so the most effective return-to-work plans will honor these needs. 

Knutter even suggests offering multiple work arrangements that include full-time remote and hybrid work. “These two options would be attractive for women who want an in-home nanny to care for their children. It would also cut down on the commute time required, which results in more time with their families. Some employers even offer a longer one or two-year leave of absence program for employees who want to spend more time out of the workplace.” 

It’s important to note that if the job requires frequent or occasional travel, there needs to be a conversation about whether the employee can realistically fulfill this part of the job. If they cannot, the employer should be prepared to discuss how this responsibility can be tweaked to offer greater flexibility.   

2. Have the conversation early

If a member of a team is taking leave due to unforeseen circumstances, there may not be time to proactively discuss what return to work will look like for them. In this case, employers should let the employee know that the company is willing to work with them on a plan as soon as they’re ready and able to talk about it, ideally before they return. 

On the other hand, if there are employees who are taking maternity leave, which is often planned over the course of several months, the employer should be talking to them about how they will transition back before their hiatus begins. Waiting to have this conversation could spell trouble for the entire team. “Employers should begin these conversations before women begin maternity leave to avoid a potential departure. The moment a woman tells her employer they are expecting, the employer should let them know they will accommodate their needs during pregnancy (e.g. taking off work for doctor's appointments), and let them know they are welcome back. Specifically, they should take the opportunity to outline their parental leave benefits, including amount of paid and unpaid leave they offer and if the company offers on-site childcare on their campus,” Knutter advises. 

HR is a great resource to tap into before meeting with the employee to offer the most up-to-date information. 

3. Bring in some help

Professional well-being specialists and organizational development consultants can help transitioning employees feel more empowered to come back to work and are less likely to feel like they’re doing it alone. 

Bringing a career coach in to work with employees can make a big difference, too. In fact, this may be one of the most effective parts of an ideal return-to-work policy. “Offering career coaching when an employee is returning to work is ideal timing because it gives the employee a chance to plan and strategize before becoming consumed by the details of work,” Knutter says. “Career coaches often work with people on goal-setting or on overcoming a particular challenge. They could help the employee overcome any unique challenges that come up related to returning to work.” Enlisting career coaching services upon the employees’ return can also help with retention; when companies invest in professional development and career exploration, employees are more likely to stick around and become long-term contributors.  

4. Facilitate job-sharing to extend employee leave

Job sharing is a flexible work arrangement that enables employees to share duties. For example, instead of two colleagues working two full-time jobs, they would each split the duties of one full-time role. By sharing duties, employees would get to extend their leave, thereby creating greater flexibility and relieving some of the stress associated with tackling their jobs. 

5. Implement a part-time to full-time return ramp 

Don't force employees to come back to work full-time—give them the space to ease into it. For most women, the transition back to work includes arranging child care, getting some extra bonding time with their child, and reworking the schedule for their entire household. Help them achieve better balance by allowing them to return part-time for at least the first three months of their return. 

6. Utilize coworking spaces

Traditionally, coworking spaces have been geared toward career nomads, including freelancers and contractors, who are not tied to any one employer or work environment. But in recent years, coworking spaces have become a haven for all kinds of workers, offering a fresh environment that can boost creativity, collaboration, and productivity. 

By enabling employees to use coworking spaces on the days when they want to shake up their routine or access a workspace that is closer to home, employers not only offer a level of flexibility that women want at work, but a level of autonomy over where, when, and how they work. 

7. Create safe spaces for pumping

According to the CDC, 60 percent of new moms breastfeed for less time than they plan to, with some citing “unsupportive work policies” as one of the reasons why. If your company doesn’t already have lactation rooms and accompanying policies that make work life easier for nursing moms, now is the time to put them in place. “One of the most important ways an employer can support women returning to work is by giving them a physical private space to pump. I've seen women pumping in dual-purpose rooms like supply closets that others come in and out of throughout the day. This sort of setup will discourage women from pumping.” That could have negative implications for the employee, their child, and for their team at work as some women may feel compelled to quit their job altogether. 

Companies that do not provide private spaces for women to pump could also face legal consequences; according to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers that are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) (and have 50 or more employees) must provide a private space for pumping that is not a bathroom and is not accessible to the public or coworkers. These same companies must provide break times for women who need to pump, although guidelines regarding frequency of breaks can vary.  

“Women need schedules that allow them to pump. Back-to-back meetings all day long make pumping impossible. They will need at least two 30-minute breaks from meetings daily (preferably spaced out 3-4 hours). Some women participate in or lead six or more meetings a day, either in-person or virtually, often making pumping impossible.” 

Employers should research how the company can offer designated pumping spaces and gauge the needs of staff. In addition to gathering feedback directly from employees, the company should consult HR, legal counsel, employee resource groups, or local women’s advocacy groups to make sure policies and practices meet the needs of nursing moms. Employers can also consult national organizations such as the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC), particularly if the company is seeking guidance on the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act and how to implement workplace rights for women.

How women can advocate for better support when returning to work 

Advocating for the type of return-to-work arrangement you need doesn’t mean you can’t also accommodate your employer. It’s okay to have a bit of give-and-take. It all starts with treating your employer with the same respect and consideration that you want to get in return. “Put yourself in your employer's shoes and wherever possible, frame what you need in a win-win scenario. I recommend proactively reassuring the employer of any fears they may have as well.” Here’s how that might sound, according to Knutter: 

“I want to be able to give my best to the job and to do that, I need to be comfortable. I anticipate being able to participate in just as many meetings, but I will need to be strategic about when I schedule them, so I have opportunities to pump twice during the day. I need your support in allowing me to block my schedule for two-spaced out 30-minute increments to make that happen.”

The goal here is to be both flexible and firm; willing to meet your employer halfway, but unwilling to compromise on the things you need most. Here’s another example: 

“I want to contribute fully in meetings, and the best time for me to do that will be before 5 p.m., at which time I will be wrapping up work to pick up my child from child care.”

The more you practice advocating for yourself, the better you will get at it. To strengthen the conversations you have with your employer about return-to-work, keep up with current workforce issues and use reputable resources to access relevant data, connect with like-minded women, and understand your rights. 

Read more: How to Successfully Stand Up for Yourself in Any Situation

More resources for women returning to work

These resources can help you as an employee seeking guidance on transitioning back to work or as a company leader who wants to drive positive change for the women at your organization. 

Resource 1: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) 

What can you use it for:  

  • Filing a complaint to report workplace discrimination or harassment based on race, religion, or sex, which includes pregnancy status

  • Accessing useful studies and reports about working women

  • Attending public commission meetings about current events and topics in the workforce

Resource: Women Employed 

What you can use it for: 

  • Learning about emerging legislation concerning issues women face in the workplace

  • Discovering ways to positively impact sick time, paid leave, fair scheduling, and pregnancy rights

Resource: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Office on Women’s Health

What you can use it for:  

  • Locating reputable data, fact sheets, and webinars about maternal and reproductive health outcomes for women 

  • Understanding the rights you have concerning break time and fair labor

Resource: The Working Mom Initiative

What you can use it for:  

  • Finding flexible work opportunities geared directly toward working moms in Canada

  • Networking with other working moms 

About our source

Kristine Knutter is a communication and career coach and founder of Express to Impress, a communications skills training company that empowers 200+ job seekers and physicians annually to meet their job search and career goals through confident communication. Kristine is also the host of the popular Express to Impress podcast.

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