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Last week, Johnson & Johnson gave a seriously generous gift to its employees who are parents-to-be. The maker of Band-Aids and Tylenol announced it would be offering new mothers, fathers and adoptive parents eight additional weeks of fully paid parental leave, bringing the total to 15 weeks for new mothers (17 if they have a C-section). New fathers and adoptive parents will now get nine weeks of parental leave. And an extra surprise: The policy is retroactive to any employee who became a parent in the last year.

To put that into perspective, the average length of paid maternity leave among the 100 companies deemed best by Working Mother Magazine is only seven weeks. Fathers at these top-rated companies get an average of just three.

Something else about Johnson & Johnson’s new policy is interesting as well, though. The company specifically stated in its announcement that new parents don’t have to take all that time off at once, "so our people can enjoy some much-needed flexibility during such a critical time in their lives."

With as many as 17 weeks to play with, new mothers can opt to take all of them in a row. Or, they might want to take, say, 12 weeks immediately after the birth and then spread out the remaining five — working three to four days a week over a period of several months to help ease their re-entry to the office.

Peter Fasolo, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of worldwide human resources, said in an interview that it’s up to employees to decide how they take their leave. “We wanted to give people the maximum flexibility to come back on their own terms,” he said. “Far be it from me to dictate how someone should slice up those 17 weeks.”

Like Johnson & Johnson, a few other large companies have been significantly expanding the time off they give new parents, especially as the fight for top talent grows fiercer in a more competitive job market.

A couple companies in Silicon Valley have set the bar high. Google, for instance, offers new mothers 18 weeks, and Facebook offers 17. Yet others elsewhere are starting to catch up. In March, Accenture said it was doubling its paid maternity leave benefit, offering employees up to 16 weeks. And last month, private equity firm Blackstone Group said it was expanding the number of paid weeks it offers women from 12 to 16. 

Yet in addition to providing longer leaves, some companies are focusing as well on how to ease the return to work, as Johnson & Johnson has by allowing women to split up their expanded leave. Such organizations are offering new mothers access to a more family-friendly schedule—if on a temporary basis—as part of a more holistic maternity leave package.

Vodafone, for example, announced in March that all new mothers will not only get at least 16 weeks of paid time off, but can also then work reduced hours at full pay for the following six months.

[An unusual new policy for working mothers]

At the consulting firm Strategy&, new mothers are automatically given access to a program that promises them a more family-friendly role at the firm for six months after their leave is over. The benefit, which was introduced in 2013, “basically shifted the [burden of] negotiation from the woman to the firm,” said Traci Entel, the firm's chief human capital officer. “It was just guaranteed.”

Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Magazine, says that 23 percent of the 100 companies on its list of the most family-friendly workplaces have some kind of “automatic phase back” benefit. She describes these programs as offering new mothers the ability to return to work on a temporary part-time schedule as part of their official maternity package, rather than having to negotiate for the arrangement separately or secure a manager's approval.

“Whenever a company asks me what they should be doing, that’s where I’m always pointing them,” Owens said.

Owens notes that other companies may allow new mothers to divide up their weeks of paid leave as Johnson & Johnson does. But unless the number of weeks offered is generous enough, it won't be a viable option for most women.

Making such benefits an explicit part of the maternity package also helps foster the idea that softer re-entries to the workplace are an accepted norm, rather than an exception to the rule, says Anne Weisberg, senior vice president at the nonprofit Families and Work Institute. “When you’ve been out on leave, you’re feeling very vulnerable,” she said in an interview. Companies can mitigate that by saying, “You know what? We expect you to do this."

At Strategy&, that kind of guarantee has been critical as they’ve rolled out their program, according to Entel. A couple of years ago, the firm began letting women take on internal staff roles or client-facing work without travel for the first six months after they returned from their leaves. During that temporary period, their required “billable hours”—a key metric for consultants—would be guaranteed, offering them protection on their bonus during this difficult period for most mothers. 

Entel said that giving the program a memorable name—"Your Baby Not Your Billability"—helped make the firm’s leadership team more aware of it. She added that its fixed time period, as well the firm's efforts to share success stories of women who'd been through it, has helped combat the perception it's some sort of dreaded "mommy track" program.

“What this program is focused on is that moment in time where someone is going, ‘How do I come to work while I’m pumping and not sleeping and I don’t know which end is up?’ ” Entel said in and interview from her New York apartment, where she is on maternity leave with her second child. “It’s getting you through that initial hump.”   

Read also:

An unusual new policy for working mothers

When 'good' maternity leave programs can actually hurt women

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