by Cat Hernandez

The startup world is growing up! Ten years ago, the average age of a startup hire was around 25 (remember when Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed that “young people are just smarter”?). But today, tech is a maturing industry – not just for the post-college set; especially since the financial crisis, it’s attracting the eye of experienced professionals who in years past might have gone straight to Wall Street or other traditional industries. With the average age of tech workers now hovering around 30, it should come as no surprise that an increasing percentage of the workforce has baby on the brain, and your company’s policies must necessarily follow suit.

While the US is still painfully behind the rest of the developed world in its family leave policies, state structures are in place to create a supportive culture for parental leave. New York State recently revised its own Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which took effect on January 1, 2018. For this year, the legislation requires that employers grant employees up to eight weeks of time off, along with 50% of their average weekly wage, capped at 50% of the New York State average weekly wage. This is an improvement over the last iteration of FMLA, which did not require any form of paid time off, but we’re still a far cry from where we should be on this issue. We won’t go into those reasons here, largely because they are So. Incredibly. Obvious.

But alas, here we are. Big corporations, rallying around the cry for greater support of parental leave, have been begun offering some pretty generous policies that allow both parents to take meaningful time away from work. Google, Facebook, Netflix and others have been leading the charge here. It’s a bit of a different story for early-stage startups, however, where smaller pocketbooks and fewer spare resources can make it difficult to enact such bold policies.

Practical concerns, however, don’t make it any less important for early-stage startups to cultivate a culture that is open, encouraging and supportive of employees as they think about and transition into their new parental role. Simply put, if you want to attract and retain the best talent, it’s your responsibility to do so.

Bearing in mind the very real resource constraints of early-stage startups, in addition to their hyper-deadline-driven environments, we have compiled a set of recommendations that will help them foster a family-friendly culture – one in which employees don’t have to choose between work life and home life – while staying comfortably within reach for founders concerned about their bottom line.

1) Be generous with time off. If you’ve ever had a baby, you’d know that time away from the office is critical: to physically recoup, to bond with a new baby, to adjust psychologically to being a new parent and to catch some much-needed z’s. We recommend, for companies sub-100 employees, a minimum of 8 weeks off, plus 2-4 weeks of transition time on either side (more on that below). The entirety of time off should be granted at full pay, with no stoppage of options vesting. Once above the 100-employee mark, many companies begin offering over 12 weeks of PTO.

2) Reallocate responsibilities when possible. It’s understandable: You’ve got a product roadmap to stick to, a sales funnel to fill, marketing plans to execute. With a lean team, everyone is in over their head and one person’s absence will surely be felt. But let’s get some perspective here; the cost of hiring and training new employees is always going to be greater than finding a temp or reallocating responsibilities within your existing team. So before getting bent out of shape about a potential strain on resources, consider first the possibility of dividing an employee’s responsibilities between a number of colleagues, or even scaling back certain functions for a brief period of time. Sure, this is more easily accomplished with certain roles than others – engineers, for instance, are more difficult to backfill – but with a bit of strategizing, it’s certainly possible to fill in temporary gaps with little to no impact on your bottom line.

3) Treat your employees as humans. It’s easy to roll out policies with an expectation of full adherence. But when it comes to babies, you can’t overlook the human component. Having a baby is difficult, emotional work, and new (and multi-time) parents often don’t know how they’ll react to their new situation. Regardless of your defined policy, you’d be remiss if you didn’t take human emotion into the equation. For that reason, we advise startups to build in 2-4 weeks of flex time on either side of the defined period of leave. This can take the form of remote work arrangements, part-time schedules or just a few days in the office. Trust us, your employees will appreciate your openness and flexibility to accommodate their unexpected needs.

Gabby Slome, co-founder and Chief Experience Officer at fresh pet food company Ollie, has a lot to say on the subject. She’s both a founder and a new mom, and admits to being surprised by how she felt after the birth of her daughter. “I had assumed that I would be back in the office after 6 weeks,” Gabb told us, “but I was completely not ready for that once the time came. I was ready to work – I had NBC at my house doing an interview for The Today Show just 8 days after Sasha was born – but I had a really hard time with the notion of being physically away from my baby.” To ease the transition back to work for new parents, Ollie now offers 8 weeks of PTO, 4 weeks of unpaid leave, and two months of flex time. The company adjusted its policy largely based on Gabby’s personal experience. “Our policy creates an environment in which people can be with their kids longer, and be less distracted once they do return to the office. We don’t want to force new parents into a position where they have to return to the workforce when they’re not mentally or physically ready. It’s not beneficial for the employee or for the business,” Gabby explained.

4) Provide tools to ease the transition. The transition to parenthood doesn’t end once mothers and fathers are back in the office full time. It’s a slow process, and it’s important for you to help smooth that adjustment as possible. Aside from providing flex time, there are a number of tools designed to help new and expectant parents. Cleo (formerly LUCY), for instance, is a marketplace focused on helping expectant families find support services, while Helpr works with companies to offer on-demand backup childcare packages.

5) Step outside of traditional parental roles. In an ideal world, both primary and secondary caregivers would be given equal treatment and equal time off. This is really what we should all strive for! Etsy has set a shining example here; the company states, “We want to support and enable parents, regardless of their gender, to play equal roles in building successful companies and nurturing their families.” Without a firm policy like that in place, women will continue to bear the default designation of primary caregiver.

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Not all startups can afford premium family-leave plans, and that’s understandable. But regardless of your financial constraints, it’s your responsibility to think outside the box and build a family-friendly culture in which your most valuable assets feel that they can succeed both at work and at home. Debating family vs. career shouldn’t be a choice we force our workers to make.

Cat Hernandez is a Partner at Primary Venture Partners.

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