Phase-back policies, allowing moms (and sometimes dads) to ease back to work with a part-time schedule after parental leave, have been around for decades at a few progressive organizations. But a new initiative at PwC has a twist other organizations might emulate: Parents work 60 percent of the time for a month but get full-time pay, even after paid leave is used up.
“We want people to come back and be happy. We saw that informally, women were easing back for maybe a week or two. We thought a month would be great, so we talked with our leadership team about how to make it work,” says Jennifer Allyn, PwC’s diversity strategy leader.
The main concern was that the accounting/professional-services firm wouldn’t have enough coverage during the busiest season: tax time (January through April). So, the firm allocated money for workload coverage for teams that would be particularly hard hit.
The initiative went into effect July 1. Kelley Curley and her husband, Michael Balbi, both PwC employees, will be among the first to take advantage. The couple had their first child, Evelyn, on July 15. Michael, who is on the finance team in the advisory group, has fully paid parental leave until October, when he will start phasing back. Kelley, a project-management director in the tax group, will return in December from her paid leave, and also will participate in phase-back.
“This gives him more of a chance to help me and to bond with the baby. And when I go back, Evelyn will go into daycare three days a week for the first month,” Kelley says.
The ability to be paid full time while still partially at home was a big factor in their decision to both sign up for phase-back. “Financially, it wouldn’t work for us to go part time, so had they not done this, we wouldn’t be able to afford the time,” she says.
PwC is a “high-performing culture that you want to hit on all cylinders when you come back,” she says, but “this is a hard transition, and it’s great that the firm understands that.”
How common is phase-back?
While 79 percent of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies have some type of phase-back program, almost all pay part-time wages for part-time hours. And that’s still a whole lot better than what’s available at most places. Only about 13 percent of U.S. employees receive any type of paid parental leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although there are no national statistics on phase-back programs, “they are unusual past the 100 Best,” says Amy Beacom, Ed.D., founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership.
It’s a shame, say Beacom and other work-life experts. Companies might be afraid of administrative costs or blowback if they are seen as offering one group of employees a benefit others don’t receive. Or they just might not be aware of phase-back at all.
For the parents, gradual return can make the difference between staying or quitting. “Almost without fail, there comes a time when that new parent thinks that they should quit. Going from being at home full time with a newborn to 40 or more hours of work is impossible to fathom. Dads hide it better, but they feel it too. As soon as there’s a phase-back option, that desire to quit goes away,” Beacom says.
She also notes that if organizations require new parents to come back full time right away and be 100 percent, “employers are setting them up to fail. Parents have to get their sea legs, and there has to be a transition. It’s not sustainable otherwise.”
“The next frontier after generous parental leave is helping them transition back. Many companies are using workplace-flexibility programs to start, but not a lot of companies have formal phase-back programs,” says Jennifer Fraone, director of corporate partnerships for the Boston College Center for Work and Family. She loves PwC’s model, which has been used by a handful of other organizations, because it’s a small investment for a big payback in employee retention and productivity.
Teresa Hopke, CEO of consultancy Talking Talent US, says she is seeing more organizations interested in phase-back programs. As they try to retain millennials, companies are offering a “robust package to support new working parents—expanding parental leave, phase-back and lactation support.” But she cautions that a phase-back program can’t be just “checking a box. It has to be executed correctly.”
In order to get employees to utilize phase-back without stigma or negative vibes from managers, everyone must understand what’s at stake. “Companies have to ensure the culture appreciates the need that any parent might have to phase back in,” adds Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. All the experts agree that having colleagues and managers who understand why phase-back exists in the first place is essential to its success
Phase-Back Success Stories
At General Mills, the phase-back program has been around for about 10 years. In the past two years, about 25 percent of new moms have used it. The parameters are intentionally loose—for the first eight weeks back from leave, the moms work with their managers for a part-time schedule that fits everyone’s needs. They are paid at the part-time rate but keep their full-time benefits. For Adria Gerber, a global health program manager in Minneapolis, phase-back was her path back upon welcoming baby Liam with husband Matthew. After 12 weeks of family leave, she decided to come back 50 percent for the eight-week phase-back. She went in to the office for two full days a week and then spent a half-day at home on email catching up on projects and follow-ups. “Your life before baby and life with baby are two separate worlds. The anxiety of those worlds colliding and how to manage them both is overwhelming. Phase-back took away that anxiety,” she says.
Preethi Prasad, who was named a partner in July at management-consultant firm A.T. Kearney, says coming back to work five years ago after the birth of her first child, Asha, was difficult. Her job usually involves traveling 80 percent of the time to meet with clients. For the first six months after Asha’s birth, she asked to handle local clients only, which helped. But when her second daughter, Anya, was born three months prematurely three years ago, the firm had started its Pathways for Parents program, which enables employees to work part time or have a reduced role after returning from leave. Bonus and salary are prorated. Preethi was able to take a full leave, and then ramp up to working her previous hours. She came back at 50 percent, then 80 percent, and then full time. After two months full time, she realized it was too much and went back to 80 percent for a few months. She then returned to full time a year ago.
“It doesn’t negatively impact our career progression. HR worked with me and gave me lots of support. I tend to overcommit myself, and they let me take my foot off the gas and be home a little more. With a premature baby, and another child at home, it makes all the difference,” she says.
Mirit Cohen, global head of Adobe’s food program, says her company’s Welcome Back initiative made a significant impact on her return. After she had her first daughter, Elana, now 4, she left her job at another company in part because “the culture wasn’t friendly to new parents.” When son Asa was born last year, re-entering the workplace “was so different. Everything, soup to nuts, was very smooth. My boss told me about Welcome Back and was so supportive.”
The program, which started in 2017, applies to all employees on leaves but is used mainly by parents for the first 120 days after returning. Managers and employees receive checklists of what to expect and how to make it work—such as making sure the returning employee has a desk ready for her, and setting realistic expectations on starting and leaving times.
“I’m very ambitious, and my job is important to me. I appreciate the kind of culture that has this kind of a program. Without the support of the program, after suddenly losing childcare my first week back, I may have been forced to quit," she says.
Does You Company Have Successful Phase-Back Strategies?
• Are they inclusive? Is the program offered to moms and dads, adoptive and same-sex parents?
• Do they train managers? Do managers understand the policy and how to make it easy for parents before, during and after?
• Do they plan for work needs? Do they ensure there’s enough coverage, even after parents come back?
• Is it automatic? At 18 percent of the 100 Best, moms returning from work automatically are put on a phase-back schedule, unless they choose to be full time.
• Do they sell it to employees? Do they communicate benefits and stories, including senior execs who have used it?