Yes to sabbatical and parental leave: "But what about my team?"

Yes to sabbatical and parental leave: "But what about my team?"

The reconciliation of family and career is becoming increasingly important for both male and female employees. Two fathers and two experts discuss challenges

7/1/2019 By Linda Gondorf
An increasing number of working people and a growing number of employers* are bringing professional life in tune with private and family life. The classic path is still being followed when it comes to applications for parental leave: First of all, talk to the boss. What would an alternative solution look like and how would it affect the team?

12 employees*, including eight part-time employees, four mothers, four fathers, one team. These days, most departments in a company consist of a motley mix of working time models (we have reported on many diverse modelsover the past few months). Some have already taken a sabbatical, worked part-time for a short time and are now back at 100 percent. There is always someone out of the office as a result of flexible working hours. All this flexibility has an influence on companies. The same goes for parental leave. In 2018, 1.4 million mothers and 433,000 fathers received a family allowance. The Federal Statistical Office reports that the number of fathers has risen by 7 percent. Praise is also forthcoming from political circles: Family Minister Franziska Giffey in the "Father Report" welcomes the new conception of men who actively apply for parental leave, often for longer than three months. Companies have also become more receptive on the subject of sabbatical leave. The number of applications to OTTO has been increasing since 2015.

Change, however, also introduces tension to teams. " Parental leave, especially one that lasts less than a year, may lead to conflicts in teams," explains Ulrike Weber. She is Professor of Human Resource and Organization at the International School of Management (ISM) in Hamburg. Employers* often face the challenge that it is considerably harder to find a replacement for a few months. So should the team be in demand, it takes over tasks from absent colleagues* and intercepts activities.

What does parental leave mean for the team?

Kirsten Frohnert is project manager of the corporate network "Success Factor Family”. OTTO is also a member. This network bundles information around the subject of family friendliness in companies. The reconciliation of career and family is for Kirsten Frohnert a personal strategic field of action, if an employer* wants to find and retain skilled workers in the future. "Parental leave is an exciting topic that will occupy the working world more and more in the future. As not only mothers but also fathers take parental leave, the number of companies that need to find solutions increases. The organisation of parental leave requires negotiation skills between employers* and employees and within teams, as well as solutions for good representation management. As Frohnert explains, "All solutions must be supported by the team.

So how can such an issue be tackled to divide the work of short-term mothers and fathers during their baby leave without creating conflicts? Martin Frommhold, Head of Corporate Communications at OTTO, would like to see more openness and cooperation on the topic in the discussion about career breaks.

Martin, you are the father of two children. Are you happy about the fact that more and more men leave their jobs temporarily to devote themselves to their families?

Yes, I find it quite positive. It makes no difference to me though whether a mother or father takes parental leave. Parents should have equal opportunities for spending time with their children. I also consider the continuing hype about men who temporarily reduce their working hours in order to better fulfil their family or partnership responsibilities to be excessive. It would be nice if the social role models that are obviously still strongly entrenched in terms of upbringing and working life were to change rapidly and that paternal parental leave is accepted as being completely normal.

This, however, requires role models and courageous people to achieve the desired normality and equality in parental leave, doesn't it?

It certainly doesn't do any harm if managers support the desire for career breaks in a favourable manner. And it also requires a whole array of fathers to take parental leave. The decisive factor, however, for better organization of work and family life in the future is something wholly different: namely, acceptance within our society, by companies or individual teams, participation in the work of others who wish to devote time to private interests. In my opinion, this requires more than just the approval and subsequent team instruction by the manager.

What exactly do you mean in that regard? Isn't it enough to discuss it with the management?

The solution lies simply in the tolerance and solidarity of the team. Of course, the company's social attitude to flexible working and open-minded management are important prerequisites for promoting career breaks. Ultimately, however, only appeals are formulated here or the redistribution of work is administered. Consequently, there is a need for greater involvement of all stakeholders in the process. "New Work" offers the right approach by involving entire project groups, teams or departments in work organization.

So what could solutions look like?

I believe that an applicant for parental leave should be able to discuss in advance with their colleagues how the work would be organised during their absence. When employees* take on more responsibility in the context of "New Work", it is imperative to broaden the discussion about how work could be most effectively organised. Once a satisfactory solution has been found, the manager is then briefed accordingly. A second check, and there you go.

That's the way it is: Should, for example, key performers* not be available in our corporate communications department, we would have to compensate for this in the team. This means additional work for almost everyone. After all, the work will not reduce. Personal flexibility can only be utilised if the community and the team bear and absorb the resulting burden. I am convinced that anyone who has experienced solidarity and understanding among their colleagues* will behave correspondingly in a comparable situation and contribute to a positive solution.

Timely and open communication is the be-all and end-all in negotiation processes: "Fortunately, parental leave seldom comes unexpectedly and can therefore be planned to a large extent. The person who wishes to take parental leave should consult closely with their superiors before the start of parental leave. Tasks and responsibilities should be listed and discussed and distributed within the team," says Frohnert. And the use of representatives? It is not always worthwhile to be induction-trained in a job if, for example, it is a matter of six months parental leave. "In our corporate network, for example, there are companies that use stand-ins - even across several companies. This creates planning security and perspectives for all parties involved," explains Frohnert.

A career interruption?

It is advantageous if the team does not generally regard parental leave as a disruption in the process. It is all about having a positive attitude towards the issue, particularly to ensure that colleagues* do not view the additional burden with consternation and therefore create negative sentiment towards expectant parents. The expectant father or mother are also often uncertain as to whether the family break means some kind of career break. Nick Marten, press spokesman at OTTO, is taking seven months parental leave. That is still an exception these days.

Seven months parental leave: pure Orga: Which of the parents takes parental leave after birth, when and for how many months? It was obvious to Nick Marten and his girlfriend "We share parental leave - equally." Nick takes seven months parental leave. This is well above the average of the so-called "fathers' months". "I know that it is not yet normal in society, in the media and in the general public. It is a perfectly normal decision in my view to take more than two months parental leave," Nick Marten explains in the interview. Three out of four fathers apply for parental leave of two months. Germany is a country of two-month fathers and this appears generally accepted. In order to provide more flexibility, different working time models are needed that make a combination of job and child-raising easier, as well as bosses who consider parental leave to be important and right and a team that supports, cushions and supports the personal decision - regardless of whether dad or mum is on parental leave. The Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research found in 2017 that mothers spend 5.1 hours a day with their children during the week, fathers less than two and a half hours. That a man alone is to takes care of a child, even for a longer period of time? Currently that is still the exception. "It has also happened that my girlfriend told me that she was on parental leave for six months and was then asked who would take care of the children from then on," says Nick. "Then we are asked about the place in the kindergarten and the grandparents - the father is not automatically considered." The reasons behind this still frequently chosen role model are complex. Certainly differences in the salaries play a role. And then there is the mindset of the father: A Forsa study found that scepticism often lies with the male employees themselves, who expect a break in their career when they are out of the job for a longer period of time.

Keeping team concept in mind

When you are well prepared for this special time in the life of parents, and have openly communicated your needs and your re-entry, a break in your career is unlikely. "It is absolutely essential to take a systemic approach and get the team on board and work through questions: How far is the team prepared to take on additional tasks? And for some people, where is the tolerance threshold? It also depends on the constellation of the team. Should there be many parents in the team with a limited time budget, or young dynamic individuals who are mainly interested in their own career, then another problem is that of time," Ulrike Weber knows. As many companies today attach great importance to working independently, teams are able to divide up the tasks of representation autonomously. As many companies today attach great importance to working independently, teams are empowered in allocating their representative duties autonomously. After all, only joint coordination ensures that everyone involved works well together. Nevertheless, it certainly would not hurt if employees* were to make concrete suggestions and also discuss or prepare them in a team."

Five helpful tips from the experts

1. Clarify questions in advance: Which projects do temporarily absent employees* still want to complete? Which ones are passed to colleagues* in good time?

2. The team creates a kind of to-do list together and works on this together beforehand.

3. Where is the tolerance threshold for everyone? Communicate openly when the workload is excessive.

4. In the final analysis, regulations should be individually adapted and negotiated. Is the employee reachable during parental leave in urgent cases? Is there an interest in part-time work during parental leave?

5. Good replacement and re-entry management for parental leave is a key means of securing and retaining skilled workers.

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