5 Tips for Preparing a Project and Team for Your Parental Leave

We recently had our first child, and let’s just say things did not go as planned. We went into the hospital about five weeks early and had our son a couple of days after that. This basically throws all our plans as a family out the window. On top of that, this also completely shifted my project timelines and expectations at work. Now, the last thing I wanted to be doing while supporting my wife or taking care of a preemie 1-day-old was plan project contingencies. Fortunately for me, this was something we knew was possible and we took precautions. Here are just a few tips that can help prepare both you and your project for your parental leave.

Communicate dates.

Communicate clearly and early with your company and client about your expected due dates and any uncertainty. It is not paramount that your employer knows every detail, but knowing an approximate window of time can make all the difference. When I announced to my company that we were expecting, one of the first things I did was pencil in our expected due date. Along with this, I also penciled in my expected parental leave around this. This helps to look at long-term deadline planning and build the initial contingencies for once I was gone.

Then, as soon as you have the rough plan with your company, start communicating this with your client. As part of acting transparently, it is crucial to give them a heads up and time to work with you to build the contingencies they expect. Some clients will be happy to spread the budget, while others may be worried about possible productivity loss and timeline shifts. In either case, starting this conversation early will ensure a successful transition regardless of the actual timeline.

Clarify uncertainty.

Raise risks for timelines and expectations based on uncertainty. It’s key that you build yourself a buffer for what is expected. If you are familiar with point-based story estimation, then you should also be aware that a portion of this estimation is risk and uncertainty. The same holds for overall project timelines. When planning epics and setting long-term goals, build the uncertainty of pregnancy into the risk for the project.

Here are a couple of ideas for clarifying and reducing risk:

  • Avoid deadlines coinciding with or near your due date.
  • Minimize information siloing, such as release patterns or specialized areas of code.
  • Promote others as the primary point of contact, such as CC-ing other team members to maintain lines of communication.

When discussing this, it is also important to recognize your impact on the risk. What is your role on the team? How integral are you to different processes in the project? How big is your team? The answers to these questions can help to determine how much uncertainty your absence will introduce. The impact of one developer on a 10-person team is much different than that of a single-developer team.

Set expectations.

Now that we have opened the lines of communication, we need to set expectations for the time you’re gone. Setting clear expectations around your parental leave will help you to fully engage with your time at home with your family. When setting expectations, there are a couple of key areas to discuss: How much time are you taking? Who is suitable for emergency issues? How much and what type of communication are you available for?

Setting these expectations can help your team answer questions and meet the client’s needs without you. Being clear about the time you are taking will prevent confusion about availability and when to re-engage. If you have backups planned, this avoids frantic calls when you are likely least capable of helping, either from sleep deprivation, doctor’s appointments, or anything else. Lastly, setting expectations around communication keeps the work out of your brain space so you can focus on what’s important.

Trust your team.

Coupled very tightly with setting expectations is trusting your team. By trusting your team, you can feel confident your expectations will be met. When you know your team will manage the communication, progress, and expectations, you will be able to put the project out of your mind. No matter how capable your team is, if you don’t trust them, all of their hard work may not benefit you as much as it could.

Be flexible.

Finally and most importantly, keep a flexible mindset. Nothing ever goes exactly as planned. It sure didn’t for us. This whole process has caused us to recalibrate several times to meet unexpected timeline changes, homelife needs, and staffing. Keeping a flexible mindset will allow you to be open to changes in these expectations. That was key for us. With our fairly premature timeline, my planned leave was altered. Due to client expectations, tight deadlines, and small team size, my schedule has shifted significantly. However, I was able to balance time with my family and project by leveraging the expectations outlined above.

Enjoy your time at home.

In the end, things are out of your control. Preparation is key to success. Prioritizing clear communication brings people to the same page, with clear expectations. Setting these expectations and trusting your team to deliver will help with a successful parental leave. Knowing the project will be successful without you will allow you to fully engage with your time at home.