How to Stop New Parents from Quitting Their Jobs

1_pWOmiQQnUYvUTMSSV_CNzA.jpegI didn’t realize how important my identity as a ‘high-performer’ was to me until I tried to return to work after having my first child. There were the predictable struggles of “why am I leaving my baby with a stranger?” panic and “ugh, it’s seriously difficult to concentrate with only 3 hours of sleep” exhaustion. What I didn’t predict was the surprising amount of self-induced shame in what I perceived as not performing at my old level of productivity.

In my old life, if I ever felt I wasn’t being particularly productive, I could easily log extra time. In my new life, those hours were directly taking time away from a new baby I was already struggling with being separated from. This sense of being a crap mom (because I was away so much) and a crap employee (because I wasn’t working the hours I used to) translated into a feeling of failing at everything. Intellectually I knew I was applying unrealistic expectations to myself but emotionally, the feeling was unshakeable.

The statistic that 43% of new moms quit their job within the first three months of returning to work suddenly made sense. Even 50% of men reportthey’ve passed up work opportunities, switched jobs or quit after babies arrive. When I saw that figure while pregnant, I thought it was shockingly high. Now I get it. I seriously wrestled with the temptation of quitting to escape the fear of being a low performer. I would have rather quit than suck at my job. You’re seeing into my psyche here and maybe wondering if I have self-confidence issues. But hearing similar stories, including stories of women turning down promotions after they returned from maternity leave, I realized I wasn’t alone in this struggle.

There are many factors that contribute to the 43% statistic, including cost of childcare, concerns about quality of childcare, desire to not be separated from child, and/or the stress of trying to juggle the new role as parent with a job. For some, leaving a paycheck may not be an option. However, these parents may choose to avoid demanding projects, not compete for promotion, avoid risky innovation, or disengage from their work in other ways.

What can be done for the new parents who want to remain a contributing member of a team, but have to navigate some very concrete logistical challenges of their new life? Many Bay Area companies are already savvy in terms of providing generous leave plans and amenities. Organizations need to explore the less obvious challenges of returning to work to move the needle on their retention statistics.

Why is it so hard?

New time constraints. Gone are the old days of working into the evening if there is a big project. Like many parents who’ve returned to work, my day has a new hard stop when I need to get my kid from our caregiver. Plus, while I am at work, I have to lock myself in an isolation chamber every three hours to pump. The actual pumping process takes 15 minutes, then another 15 minutes to wash bottles and put the milk in the fridge. This schedule makes the process of being productive a little maddening. (Pro tip: putting a refrigerator in the pumping room saves mom those 15–20 if she can put milk away in the same room and refrigerate her pump parts instead of wash them between pumping sessions.)

Lessened work relationships. The impact of this time-constraint is that I’ve become cutthroat about time management. I am much less patient with people using me as a thought partner or trying to grab unscheduled time. It has also meant spending less time eating lunch with co-workers (time now dedicated to pumping) and far less time at the proverbial water cooler chatting about the weekend (never mind I haven’t been outside my house past 7pm in eight months so I wouldn’t have much to contribute.) I don’t feel I can spend time on non-work topics. I realize diminishing connection time impacts trust and ability to collaborate, but it’s a trade-off I feel necessary.

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Photo by Andrew Branch

A belief that things can “Return to Normal” While this one is applicable to both primary and secondary caregivers, I think returning fathers/secondary caregivers are hit with this one the hardest. While most people tend to remember that a woman has literally just birthed a child, there is a pervading sentiment that after a few weeks of leave, fathers/partners are ready to get back to work assuming the same role, hours, priorities that were present before their child was born. And yet, they’ve taken on a whole new job that they are expected to assimilate flawlessly. Obviously figuring out how to suddenly juggle two jobs is a stressful experience for most!

A friend reminded me of the challenge of dealing with lowered self-esteem. As she eloquently put it:

When I returned to work, I literally felt slower and dumber than I ever have in my life. A number of factors contributed: being sleep deprived literally makes you dumber, being disconnected from work for a few weeks makes you feel behind, being on painkillers for 6 weeks turns off the intellectual part of your mind, a shifting sense of identity makes you feel like you’ve lost your footing, and having a weird lumpy body that leaks pee and milk everywhere is also a thing that affects confidence.

Indeed, in the early weeks after returning to work, I remember feeling like I had a secret second life. Outside of work, I was a ball of emotions, crying in frustration because we were out of toothpaste, or crumpling in tears hearing Joni Mitchell. And then, I’d put on my business clothes and try to project confidence. We all fake our personas to an extent, but it felt particularly exhausting in those early days.

The above examples are meant to illustrate and provide insight into the attrition statistic. The subtle challenges new parents face aren’t solved by extending parental leave from 12 weeks to 16 weeks. While the extra time is nice, in my experience, it doesn’t impact the real challenge of finding homeostasis in a new life. (Switching to a year of paid leave would be a different story.) So again, what can organizations do to become more family friendly, beyond the expected table stakes of paid leave and a mother’s room?

I found three things helped me significantly. These are things that cost little to nothing for organizations to adopt to help new parents with the transition back to work:

Three no-cost things your organization can do

1: Talk About It. As Brene Brown writes:

We all experience shame. We’re all afraid to talk about it. And, the less we talk about it, the more we have it…If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.

1_dQI_6oWxfHYYlSaXDMBpvw.jpegPhoto by Matthew Henry

Luckily for me, Keen has an established weekly “Introspection Happy Hour” where we literally sit in a circle and talk about our feelings. Even with this established ritual in place, it took a fair amount of time and courage to openly admit my struggles and fear that I wasn’t adequately contributing value to the company. But to my pleasant surprise, Brene Brown was right. Once I started talking about it, the shame diminished and I was able to concentrate on my work.

Perhaps your organization doesn’t have a dedicated practice of a feelings circle. You can still create socialization times that new parents can attend, such as team lunches, when parents aren’t rushing home to pick up kids from other caregivers. These times help to create the space for parents to chat about their experience with peers at work. Another way to encourage sharing of experiences is by creating a #parenting channel in Slack (or whatever interoffice communication you use). This helps normalize the return process by allowing parents to commiserate with one another and establish that this discussion is okay to have at work.

Providing access to a coach (who isn’t their boss) for parents to honestly talk through their struggles also provides a great deal of support to returning parents. Everyone at Keen IO has access to confidential coaching, a program consistently cited as the number one perk of working at our organization. If you don’t have a coaching program or budget, find the closest thing you have to a supportive confidant such as an HR Business Partner. You can also supplement benefit programs with additional resources designed specifically for new parents.

2: An Executive Champion. The first few months after my return to work, our Chief Data Scientist would periodically say things to me such as, “you are doing amazing.” One time I remember sharing a feeling of stress or fatigue; I don’t remember exactly what it was but I remember her response vividly. She responded by asking me, “Did you take on too much?” This was a key moment for me. She wasn’t placating me with a response of “you are doing fine,” she was acknowledging that I was struggling and suggesting that perhaps I’d chosen to make my scope of work too big. And that I could take less on to my plate and still be a valuable member of the team. This helped me stop trying to overcompensate by saying yes to everything. Having a leader communicate a message that I was doing fine and meeting or exceeding expectations greatly helped me stop applying an undue amount of pressure and stress on myself. This type of support and conscientiousness is something all great managers can offer their returning parents.

3: Flexibility to Customize to the Individual

Leave Customization. When I was out on maternity leave, I only went completely out of touch for 2 weeks. After that I started having once per week 1:1s on an alternating schedule with the two teams I sit on (HR & Leadership Team). This enabled me to be available as a thought partner to the people covering my areas and to stay in touch with the business. It also allowed me to spend the remaining 95% of my time concentrating on my new baby and not wondering or worrying what was going on at work. As a counter example, I have a mom friend who had to turn in her laptop during her maternity leave. For four months she was expected to go completely dark. This would have given me tremendous anxiety to be so out of touch. Maybe for others, being able to unplug completely would be ideal, but it wasn’t my friend’s choice, it was her only option. Creating choice allows the parent to tailor their leave to what will best meet their unique needs. While some people might do best with a big chunk of uninterrupted leave, others might thrive with an earlier return to work and shortened work week for a period of time.

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Photo by Kari Shea

Location Customization.Keen’s culture supports working remotely. 38% of our staff is remote and we encourage our SF based team to decide where they will be most productive. Many people tend to work in the office a few days per week for meetings and at home or in coffee shops one or more days per week when they need to do heads down or creative work. Having the ability to work from home two days per week massively alleviated the stress of having to face what can be a daunting, seemingly black/white choice between my career or my baby. If I had been immediately faced with the prospect of going from being with my baby everyday to away from her 5 days per week there is a very real chance I would have quit my job. I certainly would have been more distracted and distraught. My daughter is with a nanny during the two days I work from home. Instead of stopping work to pump like I do while at the office, I can spend those 20 minutes breastfeeding her and saying hello. These periodic visits and cuddle time make all the difference to me. Plus working from home saves me 3 hours of commute time, which I can invest in being productive instead.

Hours Customization. Allowing for a flexible schedule provides the new parent with the ability to adapt. This might mean replacing the working day of 9am — 6pm with a 9:30–4:30 (to drop off & pick up kids) supplemented by some early morning hours, some evenings, some weekends, etc. Even better if the organization focuses on the value created versus the hours clocked. As our CEO often says, “I care about outputs, not inputs.” Eliminating a “butts in chairs” culture provides new parents the opportunity to find the schedule that works for their family.

 

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Every new parent is different and their needs will be different. Having a first child is a big life change and some new parents may not know what they need right away. Flexibility is a massive support your organization can provide to help retain valuable employees as they find their footing as new parents.

With awareness of the subtle and not-so-subtle stresses affecting new parents, organizations can examine the benefits, culture, and return-to-work programs they provide to help support new parents. In return they’ll receive increased retention numbers and productive employees.


If this is a topic you want to learn or talk more about, check out this event on August 15th:

Insider Tips on Returning to Work After Parental Leave
Date: Tuesday, 8/15, 8–9:30am
Location: LUMINA, 338 Main St, San Francisco, CA 94105
RSVP here


7 Tips to Transform a Stale Town Hall into a Productive Work Session

What’s wrong with this meeting?

You are likely familiar with the large-scale all-hands or town hall meetings where a large number of people gather. These are often communication “pushes” to provide information or Q&A, but they are not serious work sessions. At worst they are quite boring. And even at their best, it is simply too difficult to have a productive conversation with 50 people, so very little ideating, solutioning, or action planning takes place.

Before joining Keen’s PeopleDev team, I worked as an Organization Development/Change Management consultant. This term does not refer to integrating new updates or features into software, but rather supporting humans during major periods of change within organizations. Restructures, new systems, new ways of working. Basically, the change management consultant’s job is to ensure that the people being asked to adopt these new ways of being actually do so, and ideally, quickly.

I found that one of the most common complaints during periods of major transformation or attempts to scale culture is the slow pace of change. Brilliant new processes, technologies, or organization structures can be designed relatively quickly, but the speed at which people are able to adopt them can be comparatively very slow.

Disrupting the town hall

At Keen we’re always testing, tweaking, and evolving our organizational structure to best suit the needs of the people and the business. As we’ve evolved, we’ve found it’s important to keep everyone aligned on key areas of focus, while simultaneously creating a space for new ideas to emerge.

We tried the traditional town hall, collected feedback, and found it wasn’t really giving people space to contribute ideas and devise solutions to address the true needs of the organization. And yet we knew there were issues within the organization that needed to be addressed.

Instead of holding yet another town hall to identify problems, followed by a series of siloed meetings to try and address them, we decided to host an interactive company-wide working session called the “World Cafe.”

But how do you hold an effective working session with 45 people, you ask? Fabulous question!

The first thing we (the Keen PeopleDev team) did was identify the areas for discussion that would have the greatest impact. We sat down with every employee to collect their input across three topics:

  • What is not working at Keen?
  • What is working well?
  • What do you need right now to do your job better?

After we gathered everyone’s input, we sorted the data into distinct themes to address.

The work session

On the day of the work session, the company gathered in groups of seven across six tables. Jen and I presented the five themes that would be the focus of discussion.

The themes included:

  • What to do about too many cooks in the kitchen
  • Desired leadership behaviors
  • Role clarity and accountability
  • How to boost morale and positivity
  • Priorities in executing product strategy
  • Mystery topic (whatever was fresh on people’s minds could emerge)

Each table was assigned one of the themes, with an outside facilitator stationed at it. There was a paper tablecloth and markers available for people to ideate possible solutions to address the problem described in the theme.

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Discussions were limited to 20 minutes (hence the facilitators to keep people focused) and participants were allowed to rotate three times, meaning each participant ultimately had a chance to discuss three of the six themes.

At the end of the hour, a “harvest” was conducted from each of the six tables to create a long list of all the ideas that had been discussed to address each theme. Participants were given stickers to choose the solutions they thought would have the greatest impact on Keen. Once the top ideas/solutions were identified, action planning was conducted on the spot to identify owners, establish clarity around what they would be accountable for, and deadlines.

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In less that three hours we had a long list of ideas, decisions, and action plans. Everyone was in alignment and public commitments to action had been made. There would be no need for re-explanations, additional meetings, or approvals.

Results and feedback

Some of the new programs that came out of the World Cafe include:

  • Accountabilla-buddy: someone outside of your team to help you stay accountable to your goals
  • Team office hours: to reduce constant questioning and requests of different teams
  • Skills inventory: so people can identify experts in different programming languages across the business
  • Remote on-site: for Keenies not based in San Francisco
  • Bike shed reduction program: explicit agreement that you do not need to follow every Slack channel or be constantly up-to-date on all information within the company

In addition to accelerated decision-making and alignment, participants reported a wide range of additional unexpected benefits from the process itself. These included feeling empowered, valued, engaged, connected, heard, inspired, and energized. Here’s some example feedback from the event:

“My voice mattered. I got to hear what other people felt about sensitive topics and felt a sense of relief and validation.”

“Something that had been eating at me — when I heard others had similar feelings, I felt so much more connected to the group and it helped to talk about things that are typically very difficult to talk about.”

“We came out with a list of action items, but even more so, the connections that occurred and speaking directly about things that are not working was likely the most important learning.”

Top 7 tips for holding your own World Cafe

If you’re interested in trying this at your organization, here are the top 7 factors that contributed to the success of the event:

  1. Try to get the everyone in the room, or at least ensure equal stakeholder representation from each department.
  2. Have color markers and butcher paper handy at each table so people can take notes and build off of what was discussed in previous rotations.
  3. Have outside (preferably World Cafe or Organization Development trained) facilitators at each table so everyone in your company can participate.
  4. Identify the topics that matter before the session. It’s best to collect this data anonymously so people can surface what they might be scared to bring up in a typical all-hands Q&A.
  5. Coach company leaders to wait to speak at their tables so everyone isn’t waiting to see what they say about a topic before speaking.
  6. Open the session with a statement that we are going to talk about the things we all know are happening but are not being discussed. Giving permission to name elephants in the room will help make the most of your meeting time.
  7. Remember that a huge part of the value is the experience itself. The practice of open discussion of tough topics creates communication pathways for feedback loops….an essential habit of learning organizations and key enabler of organization agility!

If you’d like to discuss this event further or want more tips on how to do this at your company, feel free to reach out to me at nielsen@keen.io. Or if you’d like to share your ideas or experiences with different organization improvement exercises, please leave a comment below or tweet me your ideas @redesignod.


How to Give and Receive Effective Feedback

The most valuable lesson I learned in grad school was not a theory, problem-solving technique, or research method. It was learning how others perceived me.

For most of my life I’d had a fear of taking up too much space. In the classroom or workplace I was careful not to speak up too often, lest I be perceived as attention-seeking, egocentric, or dominating. My reticence to speak was built on a series of assumptions I thought of as simple truths.

That changed during a class called Group Dynamics, known in some circles as “Touchy-Feely,” in which much of the curriculum involved giving one another feedback and sharing our perceptions. I was shocked to discover that my peers did not find me space-consuming as I feared, but rather too quiet, wishing that I would speak up more often to share my thoughts. They encouraged me to take up even more space in the room. It was life-changing.

Finding my voice in group situations enabled an entirely new career path of consulting, facilitation, and leadership that I was surprised to discover suits me quite well.

It surprised me that rather than going deeper within, under the banner of self-improvement (as I had previously done via introspection, journaling, therapy, meditation, etc.), this catalyzing learning was only possible by perceiving myself through others’ eyes, rather that my own. And it was far more actionable and life-enhancing.

What impact do our words and behaviors actually have on others?

We can guess, but we don’t really know until we ask. The answers are often different than we expect. I thought I was being accommodating, conscientious, and polite, but others saw me as withholding, aloof, and withdrawn. That is quite a delta.

Yet all I had to do to close the gap between intention and impact was to ask. My peers held a wealth of information about me, which, if I asked in the right way, I could unlock.

These deltas of intention and impact happen all the time from interpersonal one-on-one relationships to large-scale brand perceptions. A company may believe it is presenting its product as mature, sleek, and clean, while its consumers actually find it dull and unengaging. This discrepancy is why focus groups and branding firms exist in our marketplace.

Effective customer research, crowd-sourcing, and supply-chain optimization projects decrease the delta between product intention and consumer reception. But who provides this service for the individual?

Obtaining individual feedback is as simple as asking for it, but this does not make it easy.

The word feedback often has a cringe-worthy association as an opportunity for someone to deliver unsolicited criticism or an annual event in which someone rates you against a contrived scoring system to determine your compensation, career trajectory, and ranked placement against your peers.

But real feedback, information carried from an output back to the input, provides a wealth of insight and opportunity to learn.

In my case, I had been told previously that I was intimidating. But no one ever explained to me why that was. I was left to interpret for myself. I made up a story about being “too much.” Not until graduate school did someone explain to me that it was my quietness that was intimidating. My silence made people feel judged. I was intending to be polite and the impact was intimidation. That is a big difference.

Receiving feedback on your actual impact allows you to narrow the delta between intention and impact and increase your effectiveness.

Good feedback has this goal at its heart: success for the recipient.

Good feedback is also actionable. It is not directed at one’s character (e.g. “you are boring, careless, or intimidating.”) Useful feedback identifies the specific, observable behaviors that lead to the character labels. Telling someone they are boring does very little for them except make them defensive and hurt their feelings; they don’t know what about them is boring (the stories they tell? the way they dress? the tone of their voice?).

However, when someone describes a specific behavior (e.g. “when you speak in monologue without pausing, I find myself losing interest”), the recipient has the data needed to change the impact. Graceful feedback empowers the recipient.

Isn’t the opportunity to be more effective a lovely gift we can give each other?

Here at Keen, our coaching team is striving to change perceptions about direct feedback from being a scary, confrontational event to a learning opportunity and expression of caring.

In addition to individual coaching sessions, we provide an Effective Communication Learning Lab to all employees. We teach the principles of non-violent communication and active listening while giving participants opportunities to practice requesting, delivering, and receiving feedback in a conscientious, honest, and caring way.

Narrowing the delta of intention and impact can be broken into three steps:

  1. Acknowledge that the way you intend to be perceived is not necessarily what is happening.
  2. Find a group of people you trust to deliver honest and caring feedback.
  3. Muster the courage to ask and listen.

By seeking and sharing meaningful feedback, you can overcome misconceptions about yourself and others, discover hidden strengths and talents, and build trust with the people close to you. Most importantly, you can close the gap between intention and impact and be perceived the way you truly want to be seen.