Of course you’re happy when one of your most capable employees tells you she or he is having a baby. And of course you want that person to feel comfortable and secure taking all the leave the company offers. But there’s no denying that you’ll also likely grit your teeth a little when you imagine having that pivotal person out of the office.
Once you recover your equanimity and start making plans, keep in mind that 6 weeks, 12 weeks, 16 weeks, 26 weeks, or even a year without someone who makes important contributions to your team’s work is a lot better than having that person quit, and significant paid parental leave offerings make valuable employees more loyal and engaged when they come back. In the meantime, you have an opportunity to let other team members spread their wings.
Focus on the employee who’s getting ready for leave
Make sure your employee knows that you expect him or her to take the full allotment of parental leave. Many people feel that even though the company handbook says they can take a lot of time, their immediate bosses would rather they didn’t take advantage of the policy. This is a particular problem with men, who feel pressure to show that parenthood won’t affect their work at all, according to a Boston College Center for Work and Family report. As a manager, you have the responsibility to explicitly tell your employees to take whatever time they’re due, and to reassure them that you’ll figure out a way to get along without them (but will not let parental leave affect their client bases or the quality of their assignments when they return).
Make sure your company’s HR department responds to your employee with prompt and complete information about the administrative and logistical aspects of the leave process, and advocate for him or her if there’s any question about how much time is available. Don’t think you’re just doing this to be nice—the reason your company offers a paid leave benefit is to increase retention and loyalty among important employees, so make sure those people have positive feelings about the experience. Remember: The more valuable someone is to your team, the more vital it is that they go out on leave feeling appreciated and secure.
Have him or her write everything down
Get this process started early, because you’ll need time to arrange coverage. You probably have a general sense of all the big-picture duties this person handles, but there are likely many, many day-to-day chores that you never think about. You want to have a list of them.
Look at the calendar with your team member and make note of anything that will happen during the leave period that he or she would normally handle. If you can anticipate planned communications, have your employee share email templates. Make sure you can access any necessary documents or databases through company servers or ask your employee to send important items to you. Get contact information for all the clients and vendors that the person normally works with.
Aim to have all these materials in hand at least a month before the baby’s due date, because babies don’t care about schedules.
Discuss the new parent’s return
The first few weeks after parental leave will require some adjustment: If your company has a policy allowing new parents to ease back into work part-time for a short period, be sure your employee knows how to request it. Once the baby arrives, lack of sleep and childcare hiccups can make a work-from-home day a lifesaver if it’s practical in your employee’s role—get the right technology set up now, when things are still relatively calm. If you’re open to the idea of letting him or her work from home a couple of days a week, say so, but be clear that you aren’t suggesting skimping on childcare on those days.
Be creative in figuring out coverage
If the employee who’s going out on leave has long-term projects underway, consider putting those on hold completely until he or she comes back.
Rather than jumping straight to the simplest way to cover the work that does need to be taken care of (handing responsibility to whichever team member already knows the most about the duties), take advantage of the opportunity to let one or more junior staffers stretch their capabilities. You might find that you have resources you weren’t aware of on your staff already. Ask around to see if anybody is specifically interested in learning more about the work you need covered—one of the most effective ways of keeping employees engaged is by encouraging them to take on new challenges, which doesn’t always happen day-to-day since everybody is stuck in their own ruts, just trying to meet their own deadlines. Covering for someone on parental leave forces a mix-up that can be revealing and empowering.
Also, definitely hire whatever type of temporary or contract help you can manage with your budget. Even if it’s just a part-timer who’s only qualified to maintain spreadsheets and answer phones, it will take pressure off the team members who are taking on new duties and learning new processes.
Monitor your team to make sure they’re not overwhelmed
Hopefully, everyone will know their responsibilities at least a couple of weeks before the baby is due, so they will have a chance to get basic questions answered and collect important materials and contacts. Be sure they know which projects to prioritize.
Make a point of thanking your team sincerely for stepping up. Don’t assume they’re not having problems just because they don’t complain—check in regularly so you can offer support.
And don’t let anybody forget that the whole point of the exercise is to keep things going smoothly until your valued and beloved team member reappears, possibly a little sleepy and disheveled but anxious to be a part of the team again. As everyone keeps telling new parents, “It goes by so fast.” That will ultimately be true in the office, too.