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Parents who code: How to welcome your developers back after parental leave

Sinéad Cummings

Senior Consultant Software Developer

Introduction

The fast-paced nature of the tech industry can cause large knowledge gaps to develop in those taking extended leave. This impacts people’s mental health and wellbeing, intensifies imposter syndrome, and further promotes poor stereotypes of what a real developer looks like.

As an industry we are working hard to encourage more diversity into technical roles, but for many (myself included) being a part of that diversity can result in a painful mismatch between our personal and professional goals. For women and diverse genders that choose to be parents, we work hard to get where we are, to prove ourselves in an industry that historically prioritises long hours, years of experience and the ability to keep up with the cutting edge of the industry. None of that aligns with taking a 6–12-month career break where your main concerns are nappies, bottles and the last time you had a shower.

While I was working in my previous role, I became a mum through adoption to the most incredible little kid, so I took 6 months off on parental leave. My biggest concern was how much technical knowledge I would miss while I was away and how I could catch up as quickly as possible when I returned. I had worked hard to catch up to my peers after career switching and was anxious about falling further behind.

There was nothing available to support that, so I created a role specific return to work plan for myself and my technical peers to use. This article will describe why it's so vital we support people returning from parental leave, and three steps you can use to make returning from parental leave as easy as possible.

Sinéad Cummings

Why Development Leaders?

Historically, onboarding and re-onboarding staff has been the remit of HR and line managers, however as we continue to see teams becoming more self-managed, it often falls to the team to support individuals through experiences like returning from parental leave.

It's hard to spot bad processes when you don't see them very often, and parental leave is not something you'll deal with every day. It is therefore likely to land on your returners, who suffer through those bad processes, to correct them for you.

For example, Google have parking right at the front of their building for their pregnant staff. However, this is only in place because Sheryl Sandburg struggled to walk the full length of their carpark when she was pregnant, so asked for a change1.

Women only make up 26% of the UK tech sector workforce2 and only 5% of leadership roles in UK tech are taken by women3.

We are all accountable for making the tech industry a safe and welcoming environment for women and diverse genders, and a huge part of that is how we tackle parental leave.

While our people teams work on sorting parental pay, paternity leave and flexible working, as Development Leaders we must limit the knowledge gap created during leave and consider mental health and well-being on return.

Steps to success

Everything I recommend has been inspired by returning from parental leave. However, you’ll come to see that it can benefit anyone taking long-term leave – such as sick leave, bereavement leave or sabbaticals. There is also a great deal of overlap between supporting returners and onboarding new starters, so these steps can also assist with onboarding.

Empowering underrepresented groups, such as mothers working in tech roles, leads to inclusive policies and practices that will benefiting everyone.

We get it right for our parental leave returners with:

  1. Documentation
  2. Keeping in touch
  3. Buddies

Documentation

Let’s be honest, we all hate doing documentation and it’s a chore keeping it up to date. It’s dull to write and easily forgotten. Also, doesn’t the agile manifesto urge “Working Software Over Comprehensive Documentation”? Well yes, but it also encourages “Individuals over process and tools” 4. In this case, documentation is key in taking care of our individuals.

As we’ll have seen when someone new joins the team and challenges our technical design decisions, when our teammate returns from leave, they too may disagree with some of the technical decisions the team has made. It's perfectly normal to be resistant to change when you've missed parts of, or all of, the decision making process. Your returner will have a bias towards what was in place before their leave, so to get it right for them, we need to fill in as many of those missing decisions as possible.

Showing your returner the options the team have considered and why you've made certain design choices will help move them from resistance, through exploration and into a phase of acceptance.

Documenting design decisions promotes trust between the individual and their team, helps to reduce their knowledge gaps and will help your team make better decisions overall.

(For more information on documenting design decisions, checkout Andrew Harmel-Law’s LeadDev London 2022 talk: A commune in the ivory tower? A new approach to architectural decisions)

It's not just technical design decisions you should be documenting though, it’s as much as you can. How many mistakes would you make if six months of changes weren't documented or communicated to you? Your returner will already be anxious on their return, add to that making lots of little mistakes because coding standards have changed, or the service doesn't run the same; this will only compound those feelings of anxiety.

Remember, nothing is too small when you’ve missed up to a year of work. What may feel like an inconsequential change to you, could be a significant change to the returner’s way of working.

Be creative and think about what medium best suits the information you are trying to share. It doesn’t need to be written in a blog or technical document, record a video or demo, use mural boards, provide recordings of team meetings and use AI to build summaries for us.

Keeping in touch

The documentation is key, but if you push it all on your returner in one go, things will get missed, their knowledge gap will grow and all your hard work immediately loses a lot of its value.

So how do we do it better? In the UK, people on parental leave are entitled to up to ten paid working days called Keeping In Touch (KIT) days5. We should make use of those.

Instead of pushing all that missed knowledge onto your already exhausted and overwhelmed returner, instead use their KIT days to reduce information overload by allowing them to pull knowledge in chunks over their whole period of leave.

Those check-ins will also help you navigate what your parent wants their return to look like. It’s important to know how ready to return someone feels throughout their period of leave and we get it right by pacing their return right.

Do they want their team to consider them in their sprint velocity from week 1? Or would they rather take time to read through documentation, do training and tackle some coding katas? If they aren’t going to be on a project team when they come back, do they need clear goals and check ins to help them feel they are adding value.

KIT days also help your new parent reconnect with their life outside of being a parent. The transition into parenthood is incredibly overwhelming and you can lose touch with who you see as your “real self”. This is a big factor in post adoption and postnatal depression.

I relished my KIT days mainly because I enjoyed being my old self again. My team were visibly pleased to see me, and it really filled me up and kept me going when long days of parenting ran me down.

Buddies

The purpose of a buddy is to be an advocate for your new parent while they are on leave and when they return.

Yes, someone is on leave and yes, they might be on leave for up to a year, but it's important that their department doesn’t forget all about them, and their buddy is there to ensure that doesn't happen. None of the other steps are likely to stick if you forget what you are doing them for.

It’s important that this buddy is chosen by the person taking leave, not by a manager. It needs to be someone they feel comfortable with, so talking about work while they’re away doesn’t cause feelings of stress when they’re supposed to be off. It also needs to be someone your new parent can be honest with. There will be days where being apart from their child is incredibly hard and personally, I didn’t feel comfortable crying all over my line manager.

We get it right when give people space to be themselves.

To prevent KIT days being wasted, having your buddy coordinate KIT day meeting invites means someone is keeping an eye on them while you're away. They can rebook meetings if needed, or help you rearrange your KIT day if key contacts are due to be away.

The first day back after leave can be a daunting one so it's going to be important to have someone to prep your team, book meetings in with key people, such as HR and line managers, and welcome you back when you start for the day. Having a return filled with people happy to see them back will be a great boost for your returners self-confidence.

It’s also important to remember that returning to work lasts longer than the first day, or week. That buddy relationship can and should continue for at least the first few months of leave. It will take a while for your returner to feel settled and it’s vital they have a good level of support during this time. That support should include you as well, so don't be afraid to organise regular catchups with your returner. After being out of the loop for so long this is a fantastic way to increase confidence and improve job performance.

Conclusion

Documentation, Keeping in touch and Buddies. All these, as individual steps, will make a huge positive difference for your returner. But these steps are also truly additive; for maximum impact, implement them all.

It’s also important to remember these steps should always remain optional for your returners. Not everyone will want a buddy or a bright spotlight when they return and it's important to respect that choice. But we must do our part, so opting in is entirely within their control.

The process of returning is going to be unique to each individual, so make sure to start conversations about their time off and their return are nice and early, so we can get it right for them.

While these are three steps you can take, they are not the only things you can do:

  • Work closely with anyone in your team that has ever been on parental leave, has returned recently or is due to return soon. What worked for them? What didn’t work for them?
  • Have a ways of working session when someone returns and make sure everyone in the team understands their new working patterns
  • Make a fuss of someone when they return, make sure they feel valued
  • Get your organisation signed up to The Maternity Pledge6

We get it right for our returners when we assume nothing about what matters to them and what information they will need to know. We get it right when we write stuff down, build trust by providing transparency of decisions, and reduce anxiety by ensuring they know exactly what is required to continue to perform their job well.

We get it right for our returners when we consider them during their period of leave, not just before and after. When we drip feed information and take them on the journey of change. We get it right when we spend some time reminding them that they are still a person, not just Mum or Dad.

And finally, we get it right by remembering our teammates while they are away, respecting how hard their return will feel and supporting them when they're back and beyond.

Authors

Sinéad Cummings

Senior Consultant Software Developer

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