How the pandemic changed Ritual CEO Katerina Schneider's views on paid leave and leadership

At the health company Ritual, employees get every first Friday of the month off. Parents receive a $200 monthly stipend to help cover care costs, such as babysitting and educational resources. All workers and their families have access to teletherapy through a free TalkSpace membership, and each person can tap a one-time $300 stipend to furnish their office while working from home.

These new forms of paid leave and financial assistance are intended to support the vitamin-maker's 60-plus employees during the pandemic, something founder and CEO Katerina Schneider has prioritized since she closed her L.A. office in early March. As business leaders around the world figured out how to transition their workforces to become remote in the spring, Schneider faced her own personal challenges in the early days of the pandemic.

She was weeks away from giving birth to her third daughter and unexpectedly became the household's primary breadwinner after her husband's travel start-up shut down due to virus-related restrictions. Furthermore, a nanny who helps care for Schneider's older daughters, both under the age of 5, has her own health issues that place her at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, so they limited the amount of time she spends in their home.

With all of these concerns in mind, Schneider recognized the added responsibilities other Ritual employees, new parents or otherwise, were taking on due to the pandemic and set out to create more flexible benefits to support them at home.

That includes a new companywide day off every first Friday of the month. "You can have a policy, but people feel uncomfortable taking advantage of it," Schneider tells CNBC Make It of the mandatory three-day weekend instead of leaving it up to employees to initiate. The extra day off doesn't result in reduced pay, and she says Ritual has not gone through layoffs due to the pandemic.

New parental benefits for the pandemic and beyond

Schneider's experience taking maternity leave in May — the first time she's ever done so — also pushed her to think of other ways to better support parents at Ritual.

"I've always advocated for maternity leave," she says, "but as many founders will attest, it's hard to take it for yourself when you're still a small company."

Schneider launched the health start-up in 2016 while pregnant with her first child. She recalls returning to work and taking meetings within weeks of giving birth to her first two daughters due to the stress of growing a young business, even though she was still physically and emotionally recovering from childbirth.

With that said, she recognizes "I was privileged enough to bring on child care and be able to work right away after giving birth. I was pumping and breastfeeding my babies for a year and a half, but I had support. I think it's really important to talk about that. There's no way you can run a business and not have incredible support, whether in the form of family or other help. I had a great team from the beginning, but the pandemic made it more challenging."

Given the risks of the virus, Schneider decided to forgo bringing in a family member or additional help, other than the caregiver to her older children, to care for her newborn this spring.

"This was the first time I experienced a maternity leave in a sense that I was home with my child 24/7 taking care of her basically on my own," she says. Though she had help from her husband, primary responsibilities like nursing fell to her, and so she took a break from work to fully care for her newborn.

Schneider says taking this maternity leave challenged her perspective on a number of things as a company leader, such as paid family leave and how she could support parents during the pandemic and beyond.

So, in addition to the monthly care stipend for parents, Schneider is expanding the Ritual's existing family leave policy (currently 12 weeks fully paid leave for all new parents) to include transitional months for parents who give birth to return to work over time.

Instead of expecting new parents to return to a full 9-to-5 workday soon after giving birth, Schneider says, "we want to allow for a few months to make sure there's time for birthing parents to really bond with their kids while they transition back into the workforce."

Employer support must be ongoing

Now that Schneider is back working full-time, she's open about the fact that the workday looks different for a lot of employees, especially parents. "I bring my baby on calls for work and try to normalize that for other parents during this time," she says. "I try to say, 'Hey, it's OK to have your kids in the background — this is the new reality.'"

Schneider says she never intended to build a company that supported widespread remote work, but she credits her leadership team for setting up the technology infrastructure to do so, as well as guiding employees through the new arrangement.

"I think the biggest driver was that everyone was really connected to the mission of the business and had a clear vision from leadership of what we'd be doing for the next 6 to 12 months," Schneider says. "When we hit the ground running from home, people worked harder than ever."

Still, she adds that it's crucial to keep a pulse on how employees are feeling as the pandemic drags on. Ritual sends out surveys to solicit employee feedback about what they need to feel supported.

"Emotions come in waves, and you can never get too comfortable as leadership or as a company with how things are going. It's just constantly changing," Schneider says. "So how do we evolve to support people mentally and physically in every single way during this time?"

Now, several months into a new remote arrangement, Schneider may be open to a hybrid workforce once the risks of the coronavirus subside.

"I have no doubt that if we went back to normal, people would function and exceed expectations without being in an office," she says. "I think that's a huge testament to our executive leadership team — it's been inspiring to see."

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