Flexibility makes maternity leaves manageable

Chris Blake, account director at MSR Communications, remembers it like it was yesterday.

Chris Blake, account director at MSR Communications, remembers it like it was yesterday.

Mary Shank Rockman, the principal at MSR, had just announced she was pregnant, a week after Blake's wife announced her pregnancy. Blake and Rockman were two-thirds of a boutique agency in San Francisco. That day, Rockman was on the phone with more news: the agency's biggest client was leaving after four years.

"Our office was a flat and my desk was in the kitchen," Blake recalls. "I was washing dishes when she called. I left the water on and flooded half my office."

Blake and Rockman had to make some hard decisions. The former moved to LA to be closer to his family, but kept working for MSR. Rockman kept working, too, but started taking Fridays off. The two relied on their work-from-home senior-level freelancer, an account coordinator, and MSR's intern program. Together they were able to attend to their new families without giving up the business.

The kitchen survived and so did the firm. Two years later, the shop won tech client Ariba, among a dozen new business wins, hired five people, and moved to a 2,600- square-foot office in San Francisco's Jackson Square.

MSR was able to juggle the two maternity leaves, gain new clients, and keep its business. It's proof that a boutique needn't fold when its talent decides to start families.

Rockman says leaves of absence now are handled easily, even though MSR is still a small agency. They create quarterly plans for all their clients and the whole staff knows each detail.

"Everybody is involved in the process. Each person, down to the interns, knows the plan for clients," she notes. "That prepares us for a seamless transition. We are so small and nimble that we are able to work closely with each client. We make sure everyone knows how to manage various accounts, so we can execute accordingly without having any hiccups."

As a significantly larger firm, global agency Text 100 has a lot of set policies regarding maternity leave and doesn't have to face losing business over pregnancies.

Rachael Heald, global director of HR at Text, says that maternity leaves are so common, they are never cause for panic.

"Clients deal with the same issues - they have staff that goes on maternity leave," Heald explains. "Most clients understand that and know they will get consistent service because they are dealing with a whole team. It's not a big deal. We put somebody else in place. A big client is never abandoned."

More important than the leave itself is retaining top people after they have kids, Heald adds. Text has committed to flexibility with its staff, allowing special arrangements, such as flex-time and telecommuting, for women returning to work after having a baby.

"It has become a much bigger issue in a labor market where it is harder and harder to attract key talent in an ever-shrinking workforce," she says.

This is especially true in PR, an industry that skews heavily female. Sabrina Horn, principal of Horn Group, knows about that. At one time, her Boston office employed five pregnant women out of a staff of 12. Horn says she is able to keep good talent by offering solid benefits packages, including six months of maternity leave.

Key points:

Interns can help with larger loads at small firms during maternity leaves

Keeping a large staff briefed on clients' issues ensures continuity

Good talent returns to work after having children, as long as they are given flexibility and solid benefits

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