Jessie Kwatamdia works at the Greater Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and has two grown daughters. But when Kwatamdia’s daughters were young, she worked for Douglas County Senior Services, which she described as a uniquely welcoming environment for working parents.
“We covered for each other quite a bit,” Kwatamdia said. “It forced us to work across departments.
“I took it upon myself to learn how to drive a van because we also (had) to make deliveries. When that person couldn’t make it, I hopped in the van and made the deliveries myself.”
The positive experience Kwatamadia had isn’t one shared by all working mothers; some workplaces do a poor job of accommodating parents’ needs. However, experts in human resources and workplace culture say any company or colleague can take steps to create a work environment more welcoming to mothers.
Daisy Wademan Dowling is founder and CEO of Workparent, a firm that consults working parents and the organizations that employ them. Her advice tends to fall into one of two categories: policies, which are officially implemented and enforced by management, and practices, which are easier for anyone to adopt.
Policies are much more visible and can be important, but Dowling spends the majority of her time — more than 80 percent of it, she estimates — talking about practices. She says the little things end up being much more achievable and having a bigger impact over time.
Culture starts at the top
When advising companies, Dowling always starts with the manager.
“There’s that old joke: people don’t leave companies; they leave bosses,” Dowling said. “A working parents’ experience is made at that level.”
Kwatamdia said the parent-friendly environment of her old workplace started with the fact that she and the other managers there were all parents themselves.
Transparency sets the tone
Though many big companies focus on developing extensive policies, Dowling said, it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference. For instance, she recommends that managers keep family photos on their desks.
“If they don’t have kids, that’s fine,” Dowling said. “But they should still have a picture of them finishing a triathlon, or posing with their niece or nephew, or even a dog.”
It’s a simple way for managers to show they have a life outside the office, and that it’s OK for everyone else to have one, too. For that same reason, Dowling recommends that managers make a point of talking about their children or family when it relates to work.
“If you’re leaving early for your kid’s soccer game, don’t sneak out the back door — let your co-workers know,” she said. “That way, you set a precedent that says, ‘We’re all going to deliver, but we’re going to deliver in a way that lets us handle these other priorities as well.'”
Proactive planning pays
Something Dowling said managers can do to help expectant parents is to sit with them and make a plan for when they return from maternity or paternity leave. If a manager begins engaging with an employee about such plans well in advance, it will seem much less daunting when the time comes to execute that plan.
Emily Clapp is a manager of human resources programs at Veterans United Home Loans, a Columbia-based mortgage lender. She suggests asking new parents what they need and then helping them accommodate those needs.
“It’s a struggle to balance all of your demands as a working mother,” said Clapp, who’s a working mom herself. “But if (managers) reach out to (working parents), it will be mutually beneficial. The mom will be happier at work because they feel supported by their employer, and therefore more likely to be an engaged and productive employee.”
Flexibility is paramount
Both Dowling and Clapp said the most important thing a manager can do is be flexible. Dowling tells her clients to know the difference between making exceptions and breaking the rules. For instance, if an employee didn’t sleep all night because of a sick child, bring in another team member to help proofread that employee’s work. Figure out ways to give that person some time to recoup.
“It doesn’t mean that they get to do it every day, but every once in a while those things are going to happen,” Dowling said. “Every single working parent will have setbacks. Because of that, you need some slack in your system. Try and figure out how you can staff projects so that there’s backup. Acknowledge that there will be speed bumps so you can figure out how to work past them.”
Kwatamdia said flexibility was a key ingredient in her workplace when she was raising kids.
“We had flexibility as long as you could get your job done,” she said. “Since we were all parents … we were very sensitive to that.”
That said, Dowling acknowledged that there’s no panacea to the challenges moms face in the workplace. But every policy or practice can help a little, she said.
“It doesn’t solve all of their problems, but it does give them a little slack,” Dowling said. “Even if that doesn’t seem like a big deal, it is. If your life as working parent can be even 1 percent better, you feel it.”