This people ops leader used her own parental leave experience to introduce parent-first company policies (including a 16-week leave)
Many people depend on Paloma Thombley, the VP of People at a fast-growing company, for direction and support . But even HR leaders don’t get a blueprint for navigating maternity leave.
Paloma’s employer, Handshake, has been in rapid growth mode for the past few years and recently raised a $200 million Series F. Nervous about balancing a new family and an almost doubled headcount at work, she was unsure how it would all go down.
Paloma has always thrown herself into her work, agreeing to late nights at the office or forgoing PTO. When it was time for her maternity leave planning, she realized the true value of time.
Paloma practiced setting limits, prioritizing, and creating intention with her team and leadership. Her hard work and relationships paid off when she was promoted to the helm of the People team.
Paloma knew she had to be the best advocate for Handshake’s working parents in her new role. She started by changing Handshake’s parental leave policy.
“It seemed like ages until I realized that at 12 weeks, a new mother can still be recovering from childbirth (and definitely managing serious sleep deprivation). It drove us to re-benchmark our policies and increase our leave allotments to 16 weeks and 10 weeks of paid leave, respectively.”
Paloma also realized how fuzzy the whole parental leave process was for employees (including an HR expert like herself). She sought out new partnerships (including with Parentaly) to support her workforce.
Keep reading to learn how Paloma worked with a supportive manager, allowed space for small check-ins, and took Handshake’s employee and parent support to the next level. Dive deeper below.
Navigating fast-paced growth, new faces, and new processes while prepping for leave
Handshake started in 2013 and recently raised a $200m Series F round. Paloma knew returning to work after time away from this rocketship would mean getting acclimated upon return. Unlike many parents on leave, Paloma found checking in a helpful strategy for minimizing ramp-up chaos.
“I’m a naturally curious person, so I would check in every so often on Slack to see announcements welcoming our new hires. This helped me orient myself without feeling like I had to engage directly with anyone at a time when I was fairly sleep-deprived and not ready for regular adult conversation!”
Paloma was intentional about her return strategy and intermittently took the end of her leave. This allowed for a slower, more successful ramp-up even with a fast-growing company.
What was most helpful for Paloma during maternity leave planning
Paloma decided to work with her coach to prioritize these decisions before going on her leave:
- What did she want to be still involved with while out on leave?
- What did she feel comfortable leaving behind?
- What could she delegate?
“[This exercise] really helped shift my mentality towards letting go of my day-to-day, but also feel like I would stay in the loop during my leave by being explicit about what types of events and work I’d like to be consulted for.”
Supportive leadership is crucial
At the time of her pregnancy and leave, Paloma reported to Handshake’s co-founder, Ben Christensen. You’d think the co-founder of such a successful company would be too busy to connect with offline employees, but that wasn’t the case with Ben and Paloma: “Ben made a real effort to connect with me while I was out – and on my own schedule. He wanted to ensure that I was able to return successfully,” Paloma said.
Paloma’s leave began six weeks before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the open communication with Ben before coming back helped ease uncertainty and fears.
The big upsides to returning to a completely changed company
- Fast company growth means less FOMO. Many parents we talk to, especially at high-growth companies, are nervous about leaving for a few weeks or months due to missing out on opportunities. For Paloma, she knew there would be plenty to jump back into upon returning.
- She empowered her team members to step into their potential. When Paloma was out, other team members stepped up to take on new responsibilities and skills. This was beneficial for their own careers as well as the entire team. She said, “Knowing that I had a team who could support the work while I was out was a big reason why I felt comfortable stepping away for a few months.”
- She channeled her newfound skills from motherhood and excelled at work. Paloma reassessed what needed to be prioritized – and how to get it done more efficiently – after returning from leave. This improved mindset helped her make big marks in her HR department, eventually leading to a promotion within the first year back.
Supporting fellow Handshake parents as a people leader
Paloma’s own parental leave impacted the way she thought about parental leave for the rest of the employees at Handshake. And with her position over all-things People, she could do something about it.
- She reevaluated the benefits package. When Paloma was pregnant, she started to think differently about the company’s parental leave allotments, and the overall benefits that support current and soon-to-be parents. That’s when she led the team to increase time to 16 and 10 weeks of paid leave, with a goal of framing it inclusively towards birthgiving and non-birthgiving parents (instead of maternity and paternity leave).
- Even as an HR pro, the process for going on parental leave was extremely complex. Paloma’s own leave experience revealed how confusing the process for going on leave really was for employees, from filing for disability to taking advantage of state-sponsored programs like CA PFL. She led her team in an effort to fix this, partnering with employee-leave-support software Sparrow in 2021 to help make that part of leave less stressful.
- As one of Parentaly’s first clients, Paloma enthusiastically signed up for Handshake to pilot the parental leave coaching program. Paloma knew most people teams focused mostly on streamlining the administrative/HR side of going on leave. However, the implications of taking leave, however long, are overlooked.
“Helping to make sure employees felt supported as they went out on leave, and as they returned from leave, seemed like such an obvious financial benefit to the company from a long-term retention perspective. I was happy to partner (and personally pilot) the Parentaly partnership.”
How Handshake is cultivating a parent-friendly work culture
- Flexible work arrangements: Like many progressive companies, Handshake developed its return-to-office plans with an eye towards inclusion and support, especially knowing that all children likely won’t be able to get vaccinated until early 2022 at best. They made the decision in early 2022 to not require employees back in offices, and instead create opportunities for connection both in-person and virtually. Additionally, Handshake knows that being a working parent nowadays means flexibility on who may be joining Zoom meetings - there is no such thing as an unwanted visitor here!
- An active Handshake Community for their parents: Employees can bond through a Slack community to share pictures, commiserate about picky eaters, crowdsource childcare resources, gather for kid-friendly events, and announce new additions. “It’s absolutely my favorite Slack channel, and I feel much more connected to our many parents than I would have otherwise,” Paloma said.