Empathy: The Key to Bringing COVID Parents Back to Work after Parental Leave

As the world still struggles to restart life in the new reality of COVID-19, I want to share my personal story of working with Eight Bit Studios on my parental leave plan, having a baby at the start of the outbreak in Chicago and returning from parental leave to a completely remote work life.  

In all of today’s turmoil and stress, this is a calming, reassuring story that I hope speaks to employers and new parents everywhere.  In order to keep the struggling economy afloat, companies must support employees and their well-being now more than ever. 

Pre-Parental Leave Planning:

My son due on April 2, 2020.  Over the previous fall/winter, I worked with company leadership on a parental leave plan that would work for both my family and the Eight Bit team.

Eight Bit’s standard parental leave policy offers primary caregivers 8 weeks off at full pay with an optional 6 weeks off at 1/2 pay. These weeks must be used consecutively.

As my due date approached, my husband and I recognized some struggles we would encounter with finding childcare if one of us were to return to work at full time:

  1. Cost of a daycare program
  2. Risk of illness if we enrolled our baby in daycare 
  3. Cost of in-home care
  4. Our senior-aged parents would have a difficult time caring for our child in our home (2 bedroom flat on 2nd floor)

With all of these considerations in mind, I realized that returning to work at full time would not be realistic personally and financially.  I would need to ask Eight Bit Leadership if they would be willing to work out a personal return-to-work plan with me.  

I’m sure that this type of employer/employee conversation could make soon-to-be parents very nervous and I was too.  Thoughts flooded my mind: What can I ask for? What is too much or too little? Will I embarrass myself? Will I have a job after my parental leave ends? Would I even be ready to work again?  How severe will the financial repercussions be?

Imagine being a cog in the wheel of a large company and needing to ask for change to your role for personal reasons. How would you feel taking the request to leadership? I bet you would wonder if there even is an opportunity to speak with leadership or if the policies are flexible enough to negotiate on an individual basis.  Most importantly, if you were to ask for something non-standard, I’m sure you would wonder if your job would even be available once leave has ended.  Dealing with this stress amidst pregnancy is unfortunate.  

I decided to talk with other parents on my team who provided wonderful advice and then I took a step back.  “HELLO! I work for Eight Bit, remember who they are?” I realized quickly that this leadership was always approachable and willing to listen to anyone about any topic, always.  After 12+ years in various industries and roles, I know this is unique to Eight Bit. 

So at the advice of other parents and with a very open mind, I initiated negotiations and asked leadership straightforward requests knowing the worst they could say was “No, this will not work for us.”  After just a little bit of back and forth and at my request, leadership was able to secure hours for me at 50% capacity for the remainder of 2020 once I returned after the 14 week leave.  This would allow my husband and me to plan for in-home childcare a few days per week rather than full time.  

I must pause here to note how meaningful this negotiation was to me.  When Eight Bit could have easily said “No, we’ll need to open up a spot for a full time project manager and can’t afford to keep you at lesser hours”, they instead showed how they valued me as a person and employee, by understanding my needs.  Since all 3 company founders are parents, I think they were easily able to step into my shoes and relate to the tough decisions I faced.  I just kept thinking about how lucky I was to even have the opportunity to share my feelings when many careers/employers do not offer that sort of channel.  

Our leadership had recently pivoted our company values to exude the theme of empathy anywhere and everywhere possible: in our relationships with clients, with each other and in our work most of all. Check out our values to see what I mean.  I was truly touched that Eight Bit held true to their values by showing empathy for me and my family, and I was also relieved that returning to work seemed very achievable. 

Eight Bit took much of the typical stress out of the parental leave situation and as my due date neared, the future seemed set.

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