How We Built UpBuild’s Family Leave Policy

When Mike first sent me the offer for the Director of Strategy role here at UpBuild, I was (perhaps needless to say) incredibly stoked. I also had a couple of follow-up questions as we discussed the offer, one of which was: does UpBuild have a family leave policy in place?

Mike and I had discussed my wanting to start a family at some point as part of the reason I was looking to change roles and work remotely. It’s not a level of transparency I’d recommend for everyone in their job search process; I was really fortunate to already have a pretty good level of trust with Mike built up from having known him through the industry for so long.

Mike responded:

“YES. While we do not have a family leave policy in place right now, it’s a huge priority for me to define something that’s A) generous and supportive of those with growing families and B) compatible with the agency model. I’d really look forward to working with you to define that.

Part of me wonders if there’s a fair way to implement a tiered family leave policy (the paid leave grows the company’s lifespan). As far as I recall (you’d know, probably), Moz offers 4 months maternity/paternity leave. That would be AWESOME to offer. At the same time though, we’re not a product company with the benefit of venture funding; there’s no way UpBuild could afford that right now – our profitability is good, but not THAT good. I think we could definitely support something generous like that in the future though. Could be interesting to explore a model where UpBuild steps things up each year to grow the amount of family leave to what we want our goal to be, perhaps increasing every year (or 6 months).

TL;DR – I’d be stoked to work with you to define a generous family leave policy. “

This was really good to hear, in part because I really looked forward to the opportunity to help UpBuild build out these kinds of processes and policies, but also (more pressingly) because I was already pregnant!

Dun dun dunnnnn! (via GIPHY)

In fact, I had just found out the day before receiving the offer (I was having a heck of a week). When I announced to the team a few months later, everyone was very excited, and we started getting serious about defining a family leave policy.

What Should the Ideal UpBuild Family Leave Policy Be?

UpBuild is nothing if not idealistic, but while UpBuild is profitable (as Mike mentioned in his initial email) we’re still a bootstrapped startup. We knew going into researching the topic of family leave that it was likely that, as the first ever UpBuild pregnancy, I would be taking a reduced version of whatever family leave package that we’d want to ultimately offer our team members in the future. Still, we decided that we should start by defining that ideal version: provided we had the profitability to afford it, what kind of leave would we want to offer our employees? More importantly, what should the philosophy behind our leave policy be – i.e., how can we make sure that this is an UpBuildy policy?

We started researching family leave and uncovering some of the driving forces behind the different packages that other companies offer. We looked at how other culture-forward companies like Buffer frame their maternity leave policies; we also talked to people who work at other search marketing agencies to hear about how they manage an extra person’s work while someone is out on leave. Ultimately, we arrived at the following tenets for an UpBuild family leave policy:

Gender-Neutral

Bearing a child is hard, hard work, and the time needed to to physically recover is something we needed to take seriously, but a lot of the other hardship (stress, no sleep, etc) of having a newborn is shared pretty equally – plus, having a partner at home to help care for an infant makes that physical recovery easier and faster.

Gender equality in family leave also contributes to gender equality in the workplace; giving men less paternity leave than what women receive for maternity leave reinforces the idea that women should be primarily responsible for caring for children. This is a perception which can negatively impact women throughout their careers.

Plus, we felt we should be providing just as much family leave to employees who have a child through adoption or surrogacy; a gender-neutral policy ensures we support all our team members in starting a family, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or circumstances.

Leave is Leave

We felt strongly that people should not be expected to be available via phone, email, or Slack during their leave. We should also work with employees to develop a plan for how their work will be handled during their absence, and how they will transition back into their roles. We don’t want people coming back to find that their job has disappeared or transformed into something else.

Long Enough

As a company with under 50 employees, we’re not bound by the Family Medical Leave Act to provide any family leave at all (as a sidebar, that sucks). However, FMLA provides employees at larger companies with 12 weeks unpaid leave. 12 weeks, or 3 months, is a fairly common amount of leave to offer.

As best we could tell from our research, the 3-month figure doesn’t appear to be based on anything in terms of science or any kind of study. From speaking to working moms, we learned that it’s about the minimum you need to physically recover from giving birth, especially if there are any complications involved.

Research indicates that women are more likely to return to work after having kids if they have adequate leave and are supported during the transition back to work (this is one of many ways in which investing in company culture helps us as a business, since keeping our awesome employees working here helps us do the awesome work we do).

Several of the companies I talked to had a transition period at the end of family leave, wherein the person returning from leave works part-time for a few weeks to ease back into work, which seemed like another good way to support our employees’ successful return to work.

Flexible Timelines

Family leave is a big expense. It’s not unreasonable for a business to want someone to work for them for a while to make sure they’re a good fit and will be a worthwhile long-term investment before spending a bunch of money on them. On the other hand, we wouldn’t want to lose out on a great candidate because they are planning to have a child in the near future, or already have one on the way, and can’t afford to move to a job where they wouldn’t be eligible for family leave. We try to be very careful and deliberate in hiring, and hire proactively rather than scrambling to find someone when our workload becomes untenable, so it would be a shame for something like our family leave policy to torpedo that process.

Many companies have a one-year eligibility for family leave. That seemed like a really long waiting period, considering the amount of time it takes to actually grow a human; we realized that we would hate for a stellar candidate in the future to be thinking “taking this job means putting off my plans to have a family for another year.” A year is also quite a long time in “Internet time,” which is where we live (obviously as someone who would be taking leave 9 months into my tenure at UpBuild, I wasn’t totally unbiased on this one).

Ultimately, we decided to offer a tiered system of leave, in which employees who have been with the company for more than 6 months but less than a year can receive a reduced benefit. Like many things at UpBuild, this is fairly flexible; the general message is “talk to us and we’ll try to do something that works for you.”

How Should We Make Sure Work Still Gets Done?

As an agency, our people are our product; being down a team member impacts our ability to bring on new clients and serve our existing clients. As the Director of Strategy, I only have half the client load of our Senior Marketing Strategists (2 clients instead of 4), but we still needed to make sure those clients were getting the same high level of service during my absence. We knew we’d either need to bring on another team member or hire a contractor to handle my client load while I was out. The expense of doing either would impact how much paid leave UpBuild would be able to give me.

Fortunately, as my leave was fast approaching, we had the revenue and client growth that we needed in order to justify bringing on another person. We hired Alex in August. That meant that he could start with two of his own clients, and then take over mine when I went on leave.

Because accountability and self-driven work are a big part of how we do things at UpBuild, we wanted the policy to outline clear expectations about arranging for work to be covered while an employee is out, while still putting the impetus on the employee who will be taking leave to make sure everything’s arranged.

The Policy

After discussing the philosophical underpinnings of our policy, and looking at what was feasible for us as a business, Mike announced the new policy to the team. Here’s the TL;DR version:

  • Our ultimate goal is to provide 16 weeks of parental leave at 100% pay, once we surpass $150K monthly recurring revenue. We worked out a tiered system to step up the amount of leave we’ll be able to offer based on our recurring revenue:

  • We’ll also offer a Transition Period of 2-6 weeks where you can work 20 hours per week at 100% pay.
  • PTO, which continues to accrue during leave, may be used to extend leave but is not required to be used before Parental Leave kicks in.
  • Health and dental insurance remains active for the duration of your leave.
  • Team members must have been full-time employees for at least 12 months before the start of leave to receive the full benefit; team members who have been full-time for at least 6 months receive a smaller benefit (team members who are within 2-3 months of full eligibility and are in exceptional standing may be able to receive the full benefit with permission from the CEO).
  • All team members are eligible for parental leave regardless of gender, their role within the organization, or type of birth (e.g., natural birth or adoption).
  • If you plan to take parental leave, notice should be given to your manager and the CEO at least 3 months prior to the anticipated start of your leave.
  • Team members will need to work with their manager to develop a Leave Plan for how their responsibilities will be delegated during their leave. This plan must be completed at least 30 days prior to the start of your leave.
  • UpBuild believes that leave is just that – leave. Team members are not expected to work and are encouraged to leave it all behind for the duration of their leave.
  • Any unused leave is not carried over or banked for later periods of Parental Leave.

How Did it Go?

I was very, very glad that we had required that Leave Plans be finalized at least 30 days before the start of leave, because my son ended up coming a month early!

I brought in my 9-month project ahead of schedule, resulting in a 50% increase in family members.

I had a call scheduled that morning to introduce Alex to one of my clients, but otherwise the plan was more or less in place. I fired off a few emails at 5 am while I was in labor, to let everyone (UpBuild and clients) know what was happening. I had a few emails and one call with Mike a couple of days later, from the hospital, to finalize some odds and ends, and that was it! I didn’t even think about work again until months later. In fact, Mike even sent me a custom XML filter for my email that:

  1. Forwarded everything to him, and
  2. Skipped my inbox altogether, so I didn’t have a huge email bloat to deal with when I came back.

UpBuild hadn’t yet hit our revenue goals to offer 16 weeks of leave, but here’s where we ended up for me:

  • 6 weeks of 100% paid leave
  • 4 weeks of 55% paid leave
  • 2 weeks unpaid (I was able to use PTO to offset one of the unpaid weeks).

By the end of month 2, I couldn’t fathom being ready to return to work. By the end of month 3, though, I was finally in a place where that seemed much more possible: the baby wasn’t sleeping through the night yet, but was only waking up once, and I was starting to feel like a human being again.


Leaving the hospital in my UpBuild t-shirt.

It was a great feeling to know that my work was being handled while I was gone. While I was sitting shell-shocked on the couch, with baby pee and spit-up in my hair, it was great to not also have to worry that my clients were being mis-handled or that my job wouldn’t still be there when I got back. The trust I had built with my co-workers gave me tremendous peace of mind.

The transition period became my favorite part of the leave policy. Not having to leave my baby for 8 full hours on my first day back at work made it so much easier to drop him off at daycare that first day (not that I didn’t still cry in the parking lot a little). Getting back into the swing of things at 20-25 hours per week instead of 40+ made the transition so much smoother, both for me and for the baby.

The best part of this entire process is the unwavering support I felt from the entire team at UpBuild. At no point did anyone make me feel like my taking leave was an inconvenience or a burden; the team was universally happy and excited for me and seemed genuinely glad to have me back when I came back. It made coming back to work something I was glad to do, instead of something I dreaded. Now that I’m back to full time, the flexibility of remote work means that I can deal with pediatrician appointments and daycare closures without having to neglect my work to do so. I definitely agree with the New York Times article linked above, that the support I received during my parental leave will make me more likely to stay at UpBuild.

Alaina O’Connor

Senior Marketing Strategist

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