"See you later" is how some businesses deal with staff members who go on parental leave. It's not the best approach if you want staff to come back, says Bev Cassidy-Mackenzie, chief executive of the Equal Employment Opportunities Trust (EEO).
On the other hand, the EEO says more and more organisations are recognising that if they don't support employees on parental leave many won't return. This loss of talent and experience can ultimately be damaging to the organisation's bottom line.
Communicate well with the employee on parental leave and he/she is more likely to return and also hit the ground running. Organisations such as ANZ, PwC, the Chamber of Commerce and Coca-Cola Amatil are going to the "nth degree" to get it right, says Cassidy-Mackenzie.
It's also important for the parents themselves to keep a bridge open with their organisation or at least the industry. Many parents feel a lack of self-confidence on their return, but this can be minimised.
Cassidy-Mackenzie says that organisations do a number of different things to help their employees keep contact while on parental leave.
"It's more than just sending flowers to the staff member on maternity leave. They genuinely want to know what's happening in the boardroom, their department, and the organisation as a whole."
Cassidy-Mackenzie says it's important for organisations to provide line managers with support so that they in turn can support staff on parental leave. "It is only small things, but for someone who is at home looking after their children it really makes such a difference.
"Some organisations give them access to [smartphones and tablets] so they can stay in contact and have access to their emails if they choose to," says Cassidy-Mackenzie. Even small and medium sized businesses can afford to do this. "A business plan with Vodafone only costs around $35 to $45 a month," she says. "That is cost-effective for the business by keeping that person in touch."
Cassidy-Mackenzie hears comments from businesses that they can't afford the cost of these programmes. The underlying problem is that some organisations see parental leave as nothing more than a holiday. They can't see the benefits of career breaks.
Yet it does pay off. Those parents who have been communicated with well during their leave find the "on-ramping" process much easier and often feel more loyal to their employer, says Cassidy-Mackenzie.
Individuals also need to look at how they can keep their contacts current and skills up during parental leave, says Kerryn Strong, senior HR adviser at Pod Consulting.
There are three key ways, says Strong, that parents can do this. The first is to stay connected with their wider profession via LinkedIn or at networking events. The second is to keep the communication lines open at their workplace. The third is to do ad hoc work.
Even if the employer isn't supportive, a staff member on parental leave can ask to keep their name on email distribution lists, ask to attend team meetings and subscribe to online newsletters and blogs. It's also a good idea to keep computer skills current, even if that just means doing the family budget on Excel and learning some of those functions of the computer that you've never understood.
Parental leave is also a time to consider upskilling. There are online courses available in most industries and also MOOCs (massive open online courses), which are springing up for many industries. These online courses are often offered by world-leading universities and cost nothing to enrol in.
Carefully chosen volunteer work can also add to skills and networks.
Strong herself will be taking her second parental leave from September this year. She says from past experience that it's well worth keeping up professional memberships during this time and ensuring you read the company email newsletter if there is one. Strong will take longer than the 14 weeks' paid leave and contract back part-time to Pod Consulting to earn some extra money and also keep her skills current.
Every organisation is different and it's important to gauge its culture. Some parents on leave choose to be useful to the company through social media, says Strong. You might, for example, keep up to date with industry news and post on the organisation's social media page.
The ANZ bank has around 200 people on parental leave at any given time and an 85 per cent return rate, says Simone Guy, the bank's senior HR business manager. "So ensuring we help that transition back to work is really important to us, to retain our talent, support our staff through different life stages and also to have a gender balanced business that reflects our customers."
ANZ has a number of strategies to improve its retention rate for staff who go on parental leave. During the first 14 weeks the bank tops up staff members' salary to their full rate. Half of this is paid at the time and the other half on return. Line managers are given lots of tips about how to stay in contact with staff. Staff on parental leave are also encouraged to come in to work one day a quarter, for which they are paid.
The bank holds networking events for mums and dads who are on parental leave and those just about to go. "They talk about the challenges when they are away and how it is going to work when they get back," says Guy.
Parents have access to online training while they are away and they can do casual work during parental leave, says Guy. A teller, for example, might work one day a week. New parents are also given access to a third party company, which can help them look for childcare providers in their area.
Another bonus for ANZ workers is that their annual leave continues to accrue while they're on parental leave. Some use the days up their sleeve to cover when children are sick or they need time off for other reasons.
Others tack the annual leave on to their parental leave. Jaclyn Margules, a relationship manager at ANZ, managed to take 20 weeks of paid leave by using both her annual leave and parental leave entitlements. She also took some unpaid maternity leave. While Margules was on maternity leave she met her line manager for coffee once a quarter. She also kept up with industry trends, what customers were doing and read the economic news online. When she returned to work it felt like "coming home", she says.
Guy herself has taken three separate parental leave breaks. What really benefited her was having a supportive manager and the opportunity to work flexibly on her return. At first that involved doing a full-time job over four days instead of five. "That meant I can get my work done well and have a balanced family life at the same time."