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A Manager’s Guide to Family Leave at Buffer

Jan 19, 2017 10 min readOpen
Photo of Nicole Miller
Nicole Miller

Director of People @ Buffer

Thinking through our very first family leave policy at Buffer was a new and exciting thing for our young company. I personally was honored to be the first teammate to take a leave and put this “into practice” and most recently, I got the chance to help with crafting our more inclusive leave policy.

And yet, for all our planning and research, there was one vital part we had overlooked: A great family leave policy doesn’t just help the teammate taking leave. It also helps managers and team leads understand the best way to support these folks in their new journey.

The majority of our managers are not parents, and we realized this was an area where we could provide a lot more direction in the form of a guidebook for managers. Every parent’s experience is unique, but we want to provide the same support to all our Buffer parents.

We’re proud to share our manager’s guide to family leave at Buffer, which includes best practices for before, during, and after a family leave experience. We hope this will assist our team to better support families, and perhaps some of the resources might benefit your organization, too.

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This is intended to serve as a guide for managers who have teammates going (or have been) on family leave. Though we strive to cover many scenarios here, every person, every family and every team is unique. It’s best to use personal judgement and seek advice in uncertain situations.

Supporting our team members during these big life events is a major part of Buffer’s belief in bringing our whole selves to work. This is also a meaningful and valuable way to invest in each person. The gift of time with family is irreplaceable. We feel this is in line with our vision of becoming the workplace of the future.

Here’s to a growing team and many new family members!

Background: Our “playbook” for family leave

First step for all our managers: Please get to know Buffer’s playbook on family leave — this explains what we believe and why.

Here are some of the basic tenants of our family leave playbook at Buffer:

  • All parents – regardless of gender or sexual identity – are treated equally.
  • We strongly urge a timeframe of 12 weeks of fully paid time off.
  • Typical leave time can vary from country to country. If it feels best to take more than three months, we’d love to chat this over on a case-by-case basis and find a solution that works for the team and each family.
  • We’ll be excited to welcome teammates back following their leave no matter how much time was spent away. Their place in Buffer will be waiting for whenever it feels right to step back in fully.

Before family leave: The 3 key discussions to have

There are 3 key discussions that are important to have regarding a teammate taking family leave: Sharing the news, logistics and timeline, and finalizing the handover plan.

These discussions might take the place over the course of many meetings. Sometimes setting up times separate from regular one-on-ones can create more focus on the bigger picture.

Discussion 1: Sharing the news!

Sharing the news of a new child can be an exhilarating and terrifying moment for all parents, whether it’s their first or fifth child. Many times, there is a feeling of guilt right away “Oh gosh, I’m going to let my team down by taking time away.”

When: Whenever your teammate chooses to share the news! We want to ensure that no one is pressured into sharing things too early or before they feel fully ready.

What to say:

  • Congratulations!  Spend a good amount of time celebrating! Ask questions (Are you going to find out the gender? Do you have a name in mind? How have you found the process or adoption or fostering so far? Is there anything we can help with? Are the siblings excited?)
  • Reassure that they have a place and home at Buffer no matter how much time they take. Assure that you will work with them to make sure it’s a smooth transition.
  • Ask if the doctors have any concerns or recommendations for working considerations. (This applies to mothers and fathers — fathers might be needed to help out more if the mother needs to be on bedrest.)
  • Ask about plans to share with the team or not and be sure to respect privacy and wishes.

What to do:

  • Take care to never make the leave feel like a burden to the team (new parents wrestle with TONS of guilt whether or not it is warranted.)
  • Send and keep sending the signal that the teammate is 100% valued and supported (especially if the teammate is a fairly recent hire.) Our policy is to offer this time for folks at Buffer no matter how they’ve been on the team. Babies happen in their own time!
  • Don’t press for too many work or leave details at this time — it might be too early and if this is a first child or first adoption, there are so many questions and unknowns. It’s okay to let things settle a bit.
  • Don’t decide the leave length in this discussion: Keep things light, perhaps offering: “Let’s start thinking about your leave length, but let’s not decide anything yet!”
  • Reassure: “Don’t worry about the ‘how’ or ‘who’ in regards to your workload — let’s think about what is best for your family situation and I, as your lead, will figure out the rest.”
  • If the teammate is hesitant to take our recommended 6–12 weeks, emphasize the signal they give to others with their decision. By framing it as “you help to set the culture that this ok,” managers give stronger permission and validation that time off helps rather than hurts the team.

Discussion 2: Logistics and timeline

This is the discussion where some key decisions will be made, so be sure to provide plenty of time and space for listening. If possible, start planning at least 1 full quarter before leave starts to make sure others can cover for your teammate’s responsibilities while out.

When: 2 to 3 months before leave begins

Learn more about your teammate’s workload:

  • What are the projects you’re working on that need to be handed off?
  • Does anyone come to mind? If not, don’t worry. We will figure it out and I can approach others on the team.

Planning for time away:

  • If the teammate indicates a time range they’re thinking about, default to the largest end of the range
    • We strongly recommend:
      • At least 6 week for secondary caregivers
      • At least 3 months for primary caregivers
    • Both primary and secondary caregivers are welcome to the same range of time and we’d love to work towards normalizing this. Some anecdotal evidence shows some of our secondary caregivers are itching to get back to work around the 2-month mark, and we recognize that remote work allows easier work access while still being able to help with baby at home. For birth parents, there is a stretch of physical recovery time needed that can vary from 4–6 weeks or 6–8 weeks for C-section births.
  • Be sure to work with the teammate to share the news fully with everyone they work closely with so expectations are clear.

Your job as a manager: Develop a transitional plan to figure out who exactly will take over the most essential work/projects. Assign someone(s) to be the point of contact in out-of-office emails while your teammate is out.

Sometimes these long absences for one of your team members can reveal what work is truly essential and what can “fall through the cracks” with little repercussions. Here is a post about Alfred taking a sabbatical and the process we took before and during and after with distributing his tasks.

Discussion 3: Finalizing the handover plan

During the last month before your teammate’s leave, begin to work on off-ramping them and make sure no major new projects are undertaken. If there is a clear starting date for the leave, the week prior should focus solely on handing over tasks for a smooth transition offline. (Of course, you might not have that luxury – babies can surprise us!)

When: Shortly before leave starts  (Recommended: 2–3 weeks before the planned leave date)

Let’s iron things out:

  • First, celebrate again! This period of “waiting” for baby to arrive or an adoption to process can be a nerve-wracking and special time.
  • If not already discussed, will your teammate return full or part time? (Ask both moms and dads – be careful not to assume.) Reassure that it’s okay to change their mind.
  • Find out how to check in: How often would the teammate like you to check in while on leave, and by what means? Make sure you decide before leave starts what works best for your teammate.
    • Some might really want to be invited to big things like all-hands meetings and impromptu hours, or have more casual contact like texts. These should be “social” invites: use text messages or Facebook messenger. Don’t pull your teammate into Slack or work email!
    • Urge and empower them to truly disconnect. Remind them that this time is special, and short in the scheme of things.
  • Reassure: They are valued. Their time away doesn’t change that and they can take the time they truly need. Buffer will still be waiting for them whenever is the right time to step back in fully.
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During family leave: Respect the disconnected time away

In general, this should be a fully disconnected time for the teammate on leave.

Communicating too much with the teammate on leave can inadvertently create stress, and what your teammate thinks they want might be quite different to what they actually want when in the situation (especially for first-time parents who aren’t quite sure what to expect!) Respect your teammate’s family time by letting them disconnect and not starting any on-ramping until the official return date.

While your teammate is away, try to record important meetings and keep a log of vital team happenings that you can share later as part of a “Welcome Back” package. Coming back can be a scary time where your teammate feels very out of the loop, so help to make it an easier and less overwhelming return.

Ways to keep the team up to date:

  • Record all relevant syncs (and even seemingly irrelevant ones!), share in a Dropbox folder that team members all have access to.
  • Note important events your teammate would want to know about (things like new hires, people moving on, role changes, vision updates)
  • Share smaller cultural happening, too: The latest GIF, meme, or new Slack room

Check in periodically:

  • Be sure to respect your teammate’s wishes for contacting them (or not) during the leave
  • Keep any check-ins purely social (i.e. via Facebook) and don’t mention work.
  • If there is an emergency at work, find a way to handle it without interrupting your teammate whenever possible. (Grab advice from me or the People team as needed!) Calling someone back into work should not be an option.

After family leave: Frequent check-ins, keep work challenging

It’s scary to return to work (even after a second or third baby!). Your teammate is likely going through a huge identity change. Expect a gradual return to work and a slow ramp-up back to full-time levels.

The “Welcome Back” package:

  • Share your log of team happenings and recorded meetings with your teammate on their first morning back.
  • Reassure and discuss expectations for slowly ramping back on as they get up to speed on what has changed (likely, a lot!)
  • During this time, very regular check-ins (i.e. 1–3 times a week, daily by Slack) are vital to make sure the work is at the right level (stimulating but not overwhelming).
  • Be careful and don’t assume you know what is best for the teammate. Women coming back from family leave often report they do not get enough work or enough challenging work. This can come from a place of empathy (“I didn’t want to burden her with the new baby”) but can manifest as gender stereotyping. Be mindful of your teammate’s preferences and goals to avoid putting them on a “mommy track” (or a “daddy track”) when that is not what they want.
  • Aim to hand back one to two tasks a week and keep communicating on how it’s going, adjusting as needed. Practically, handing back the tasks from the teammate who took over during leave should happen gradually. Staggering the tasks is key: don’t hand them all back at once.

How to support your teammate:

  • Encourage a flexible schedule (naps for new parents are important too – they are most likely not getting anywhere near 8 hours of sleep!) – There are also many post-natal medical appointments for mothers and babies. For fostering/adoption, there can be a lot of paperwork/legal proceedings to plan around, too!
  • Reassure that it’s OK for babies or family interruptions in meetings.
  • Help your teammate set realistic expectations. (Example: Cut the to-do list by 10–15% for first few months after baby) and
  • Urge them to work on the most important tasks. Smaller-scoped projects that still have impact but are not crucial, time pressured, etc., might be a good fit for your teammate. (Make sure this is their preference, not yours.)
  • Acknowledge that sleep deprivation is a real challenge and is linked to a drop in cognitive function, memory and judgment and an increased risk of depression. Your teammate might not have the same physical work capacity they did before.
  • Understand that both moms and dads will likely be facing a lot of emotional turbulence.
  • Ask about the baby and the family often!
  • Keep in mind that one week will not look like the next for your teammate at home. Children progress through many stages and routines can change often. This requires a lot of flexibility for parents and means working asynchronously is more important than ever.
  • Normalize working fewer hours. Actively encourage working smarter, not harder. Your teammate will get as much if not more done if they are working fewer hours.
  • Follow best practices for Slack and all communication channels (this is something we can explore more as a whole team). Really encourage the use of “Do Not Disturb” settings. Can your team do on-call shifts? Encourage offline time – this is super important for everyone!
  • Encourage vacation time at some point after the family leave. Remind the teammate — family leave is not vacation.

*Special thanks to our Engineering Manager, Katie Womersley, for contributing to this resource!

Over to you

Well, there it is! Our resource for managers to help guide their teammates through family leave. Is there anything we left out? Anything that jumped out to you? Do you have any stories or advice for us as a growing team? We’d love to learn from you in the comments!

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