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How to Create a Family Leave Policy That Works

How one startup developed a family leave policy that's loved by the team -- and works for the company

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When the first employee at Chatbooks became pregnant two years ago, we didn't have a formal family leave policy in place. We care deeply about our employees (and our company mission is to strengthen family relationships for our customers -- and help our team to do the same!), so it was easy to say "do what you need to do, and we'll take care of you" and then do just that.

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Related: Entrepreneurs Get to Take Maternity Leave, Too

As we've grown to 100-plus employees, taking care of our people is still a top priority, but we've had to approach it with a little more structure. Here's how our executive team developed, and continues to refine, a family leave policy that's loved by our team -- and works for our company.

1. Play reporter.

Before Chatbooks, I was a magazine editor at places like Oprah Magazine, and would often do a deep learning dive into a new topic for a story. So, when we decided to create a best-in-class family leave policy at Chatbooks, I put on my "reporter hat" and applied the same techniques I used to report a story: interview experts, talk to everyday people, read the studies and delve into all of the books and articles. There was a lot of fascinating published information available, but I found that many of the best tips, tricks and ideas were things I heard directly from working parents -- many of whom were managers themselves, and could look at solutions that were truly win-win for employees and employers.

Related: Did Mark Zuckerberg Really Take 'Paternity Leave'?

2. Set a strong base.

Let's be honest: All the extra fun perks don't mean that much if you're only able to take a few (unpaid) weeks off with the birth or adoption of a child. That's why before we got creative with our family leave policy, we first set a strong base that empowers both women and men to take substantial time off, fully paid. And like many companies, salary is just one piece of our compensation package -- often, things like bonus potential, stock option and can be substantial. So, we kept all of those intact, to create a base that allows people to go on leave and know they're able to provide for their (growing) family in the exact same way as before. And, more importantly, that encourages them to come back.

Related: How 6 Months Paternity Leave Made Me a Better Entrepreneur

3. Be creative.

As I talked to dozens of people about their experience with family leave, they often mentioned high-impact ideas that cost little (or no) money to implement. The main message was clear: There are lots of ways to make balancing a career and a new baby less stressful, and a little and flexibility goes a long way.

For example, both parents and managers mentioned the stress-reducing effect of an "off-ramping" period: a date two-plus weeks before the due date when all "critical path" work was finished or transitioned to other team members. While the employee was still technically "working" and might continue to respond to emails or finish non-critical projects, anything could be dropped at a moment's notice.

Related: Benefits Shouldn't Underestimate the Real Value of Parental Leave

4. Get feedback and iterate.

At Chatbooks, we set our base and then picked a few innovative extras to add on. For example, we're doing off-ramping and on-ramping periods, and gifting all new parents a wearable technology that tracks their baby's breathing and heart rate -- team members say it leads to better sleep because they're not waking up all night to check on the baby.

For us, family leave isn't a "set it and forget it" policy. When people come back from leave, we talk to them about what worked, what they loved, what could be better. If we find that some perks aren't valued, we might drop them, just as we'll continue to add in new things that help our team be the best parents and employees possible.

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