From paid leave to extra sick days to sessions with sleep consultants – parental benefits can help startups attract and retain staff.
Jacky Zhen describes his son Ethan as cute and fun, despite the 20-month-old throwing the “odd messy tantrum” as he nears his second birthday.
But Ethan’s early days were slightly more difficult, recalls his dad, who is a senior software engineer at Joyous, which builds software that enables two-way feedback conversations between organisations and their employees.
Ethan was born early, at 36.9 weeks, and had jaundice – a condition not uncommon among newborns, but exacerbated, says Zhen, by his early birth. There were issues with feeding and sleeping, which also took their toll on his parents in the forms of stress and sleep deprivation.
But unlike many new parents, Zhen was able to take advantage of one of the benefits Joyous offers all new parents (whether they're the primary caregiver, or their partner) – six weeks of fully paid parental leave – following Ethan’s birth to spend time with his son and his wife, the primary caregiver.
In New Zealand the most a primary carer is entitled to under the law is 26 weeks’ paid parental leave at $712.17 per week before tax, and New Zealand is one of few developed countries to offer no statutory paid parental leave for partners.
But the benefit of being able to focus solely on his family and not worry about work in those first weeks is something Zhen still enthuses about today.
“I don't think I appreciated it [that parental benefit] going in, because I didn't really know what to expect. I just assumed that it was nice to have, because other people in other companies seemed to have just the mother taking parental leave and the partner is off for a week or two.”
“But afterwards, I really appreciated the extra time that I had because it was quite tough. And that’s not an uncommon thing, especially with the first child.”
Among other benefits Joyous offers to parents on its ‘parental journey’, is the ability to return to work on reduced hours for six months on full pay and in a flexible way.
“That was really helpful too,” says Zhen, “because when you're out for six to eight weeks, and you're not working, you're in this sleep-deprived mode … and everything's about this baby, to suddenly go back to work full time, for 40 hours, it's quite a lot.”
“So I definitely took advantage of reduced hours and more flexible working for that initial three or four months of going back to work.”
Zhen says he’s “been burnt in the past working with startups that really just try to grind you to the bone” and was attracted to Joyous because, as a startup focused on making employees’ lives better, he figured it would practice what it preached.
Stephanie Pow is the founder of Crayon – a startup aimed at reducing financial stress associated with becoming a parent for both employees and employers and which last May launched the New Zealand Parental Leave Register. The register details the verified parental leave policies of more than 240 New Zealand employers, covering around one in six employees nationwide.
The register’s aim, says Pow, is to promote transparency.
“It's an awkward question to ask if you're in a job interview process and you want to know what a prospective employer offers. But equally, even in your current role, if you're maybe not quite ready to flag that you're thinking about starting a family, but you want to be able to plan your personal finances, I see that [the register] as a resource so you can make those decisions.”
Each employer’s register entry outlines both the statutory entitlements and any additional benefits the company may offer, with 39 tech companies, of varying sizes, currently registered.
Many employers offer primary carers additional leave on top of the statutory entitlements, for example, with tech employers offering between two and 26 weeks, with the average about 16 weeks, notes Pow. Paid partner leave benefits range from one to 26 weeks, with the average about four-and-a-half weeks.
And there are many other benefits that can make a big financial difference: some employers keep contributing to employees’ Kiwisaver during parental leave, allow access to parental benefits from day one of employment, pay annual leave at the standard rate following return to work (annual leave is generally calculated on hours worked over the previous year, effectively meaning many have to take unpaid leave following a parental leave period) and offer flexible and reduced hours on full pay when returning to work.
Pow says parental benefits are important for startups to consider for a number of reasons.
“If you think about a startup, what's your biggest asset? Your people, particularly for software startups, but I think that's true across all industries. And although parental leave only impacts a small portion of the employee population at any given time, eight out of ten people become parents at some point, so it is going to impact the majority of your employee population at some point.”
She points to research showing only 19 percent of employees feel supported by their organisation while on parental leave, and that employees rate it the most challenging moment of their employment, and when they felt most vulnerable.
“I've worked at a startup, and people are taking a risk, right? To work in a startup, sometimes there’s a salary haircut, they're taking a punt, and this is a moment you get to really build loyalty and show up for them. And you don't actually get that many moments as an employer to do that.”
That improved loyalty can reap big benefits, including enhanced employer brand, better staff retention and improved employee engagement. An EY survey cited in a Forbes article, for example, found that more than 70 percent of employers offering improved parental leave policies reported an increase in productivity.
Pow has a background in the tech and finance sectors (including an MBA from Wharton) but her lack of financial preparedness when she had her first child almost five years ago motivated her to start Crayon.
“Like a lot of parents, I was busy trying to keep my head above water at work and had quite a demanding role at a tech company, and then obviously there were the demands of pregnancy,” she recalls.
“Sure, I got the pram and the bassinette, but I didn't really think through my finances. It wasn't until my daughter arrived or as I was nearing due date, that I realised just how much it was going to turn my world upside down financially, and how many different decisions I would have made had I had the knowledge that I have today.”
Joyous co-CEO Ruby Kolesky drew on her own experience as a first-time parent eight years ago when architecting Joyous’ parental leave policy (which is also on the New Zealand Parental Leave Register). While that experience, with a former employer, wasn’t terrible, it was a “suboptimal parental journey”, she says, “just because of lack of thought – like people were taking my fob and my access away as if I'd been fired”.
Kolesky’s son was born two months early, then had to spend two months in hospital and was very unwell for his first year-and-a-half. Both she and her husband had to negotiate working reduced hours to care for their baby, resulting in an income hit.
After she joined Joyous in a leadership role and a colleague became pregnant, Kolesky lobbied the company’s founders to put thought into what the company could offer parents.
“Their natural reaction, which is totally the reaction of, I think, most founders, was ‘I'm an early-stage tech company. I cannot offer benefits comparable to the likes of Xero and so on’,” she recalls. “But I was able to bust that myth.”
She noted that only a small proportion of staff at any one time would draw on the benefits, that the cost was likely the equivalent of three months’ wages if drawn on fully (multiplied by that small proportion of staff) and, ultimately, startups still compete for talent with the big firms.
“It's not going to cost you the earth, you've just got to be smart about it.”
Joyous doesn’t have HR staff, says Kolesky; instead the firm’s leaders have each developed the company’s HR strategy in areas they feel passionate about, and with input from others.
Kolesky says the idea for one of her favourite parental benefits, offering five extra days’ sick leave each year per child up to the age of 14, came from Joyous co-founder Mike Carden.
“Incidentally, no one has ever needed to use it, but what it signals to a parent considering joining a company is that a really extensive amount of care and thought has been put into this policy.”
The gender pay gap between men and women widens post-parenthood – the so-called ‘motherhood penalty’ – meaning support for primary caregivers, who are predominantly women, is essential, says Kolesky.
But don’t underestimate the importance of accommodating the other caregiver, she says – parents like Zhen.
As part of her reading when developing Joyous’ policy, instituted around three years ago, Kolesky came across research showing each additional month of paid partner leave increased the primary caregiver’s future earnings by 6.7 percent. The demographics of those working in early-stage tech companies mean policies targeted at partners could also impact a greater number of employees.
Kolesky says Joyous’ parental benefits send a strong positive message to inbound talent, and have a “huge” impact on retention, with the costs far fewer than those associated with attrition.
“And it's at a time where we actually have a responsibility to look after people.”
Baby showers, sessions with lactation and sleep consultants and meal kit deliveries are among a “long tail” of other parental leave benefits Pow has seen listed in policies.
But being transparent about your parental leave policies and considering how they’re communicated can add value to your employee experience even if you don’t offer a world of benefits, she says.
Jessica McLean, chief people officer at payroll software firm PaySauce, says being open about its parental leave policies (including signing up to the New Zealand Parental Leave Register) aligns with the company’s wider value of transparency.
“I'm big on transparency, and that's one of the things that's really easy to achieve, even when your benefits aren't the most lucrative or most expensive. When you look at people offering lots of paid leave and things, it's hard to compete with that, but it is aligned to the values to at least say, ‘we can show you upfront what we offer. You don't have to ask us. It's agreed, it's planned, we've prepared for it; there are no questions for you as a potential employee or a current employee’.”
A lot of benefits that come at little employer cost can be incredibly useful to employees and signal they’re still valued team members, she says, such as allowing them continued access to the office, health insurance and employee assistance programmes, and use of their work phone and laptop.
Little things can have a big impact: for example, PaySauce sends employees on parental leave a reminder that if they sign up their child to their health insurance policy within a certain timeframe, any pre-existing conditions the child may have are covered.
Parental benefits are an important avenue through which a company can communicate and demonstrate its culture, but it's not the only one. And companies need to be mindful that not everyone can or chooses to be parents.
“When people become parents we want to recognise that and celebrate them and help them,” says McLean.
“But we also celebrate other things. If someone's paid off their student loan, that's a cause for celebration; if someone is graduating, that's a cause for celebration… It's [parental benefits] a very big piece of the employee experience picture.”
Employee benefits are an aspect covered in Best Places to Work – a programme Caffeine is supporting as its media partner for the startup community. The Best Places to Work employee engagement survey is now open.
Freelance business writer and editor; former NZ Herald small business editor and Unlimited magazine editor
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