This article is part of Workingmums.co.uk’s Future of work report.
Workingmums.co.uk: Where do you think the main developments will be in terms of family support, including maternity support, in the next few years?
Jennifer Liston-Smith: Naturally employers are likely to focus more on gender-neutral support for parents at work (given developments such as Shared Parental Leave and overarching social developments towards different styles and blends of families, including increasingly involved fathers in many homes). I also see a growing interest in supporting the ongoing parenting journey: the teenage years, choosing schools and colleges. Employers realise that support across the employee lifestyle will be a differentiator and also will enable people to stay engaged through different life stages.
WM: Given your long experience in maternity coaching, how do you view the progress made over the last 10 years and what do think are the priorities for the next 10? Our annual survey, for instance, shows many women/employers are still not bringing up flexible working before they go on leave. How can they be encouraged to do so?
JLS: We’ve made good progress over this decade so that in some sectors it is almost a hygiene factor to have this kind of service for employees (in the sense that you miss it if it’s absent rather than being bowled over by it being there because other firms also have it). The emphasis next needs to be on wider access across new sectors (beyond finance, law, tech, engineering, higher education and other relatively early adopters), but also providing services and support for the whole employee population as well as providing fuller support for those in key roles whose talents and retention are most crucial.
A good conversation has two sides and we have found that equipping managers with a simple checklist of what to cover in a pre-leave meeting goes a long way towards overcoming the natural reticence and reluctance managers feel about opening up a dialogue. There also needs to be support through providing individuals with the tools and knowledge to make a good business case for how they will work: showing how they will deliver in their role while working differently, rather than simply asking for a personal favour. The other cultural help is making sure that flexible working is seen as simply the best way to work in the 21st century and should be reason-neutral (not simply a special arrangement for parents and carers).
WM: Will we see/are we seeing a change in the work calendar, with more intense working in term time to cope with holiday childcare issues?
JLS: We are seeing lots of changes in how people work and how organisations are resourced. In the gig economy there are many choices and ways for individuals to sell their services and knowledge into the marketplace and therefore more leverage on how they work: where, when and on what terms, though I would say that term-time working in particular remains somewhat hard to manage in many sectors and in middle management where the pressures are relatively constant.
WM: Are you optimistic about the take-up of SPL or does the legislation need to be amended?
JLS: The take-up of SPL is increasing, particularly among those employers who have a) found the budget to enhance the pay, b) provided internal specialists in HR to support it so that questions are answered and it is normalised and c) promoted the option so that people know it really is possible. There may be some need for a partner-specific use-it-or-lose it component of leave, but that has been present for some time in Japan, for example, as paternity leave and is rarely taken up as it is still seen as counter-culture so we all – employers and parents – will need to be more open to it if it is to increase on a grand scale, including women seeing the benefits of sharing.
WM: Do you anticipate any further innovation in flexible working or is the challenge now more one of spreading best practice more widely?
JLS: I see us being more technologically networked as well as spreading capability for managing perceptions and personal brand while working differently.
WM: Do you think the larger employers will look more at enhancing the leave policies they have, including SPL, paternity leave, etc, if they haven’t already? What about parental leave – do you see this as an area where there may be scope for enhancement so that parents who have particular pinch points at times other than the first year after their child is born can afford to take time out?
JLS: I think parental leave is a great place to look for more flexibility and a very good way to enable parents. However, a fresh approach taken by some employers is to provide sabbaticals or unlimited leave potentially accessible to all on the basis that everyone has a life. Managing parental leave among teams where people have other life issues and interests can cause a level of resentment too.
WM: What do you think the impact of Brexit might be on family support packages? If City firms are hard hit and jobs go, will there be a retreat on diversity issues or could we see a greater battle for talent in some sectors, for instance, meaning employers need to do more to attract and keep the best talent, including doing more for women returners?
JLS: This is a big question, but, as a very brief response, there will probably be a fiercer battle for talent in some areas and so deeper investment in the top talent, but also a quest for lower budget, high-touch resources and programmes for all employees, probably more based on technology solutions.
WM: Finally, do you think the majority of employers have given enough thought to the demographic issues that are pushing the need for greater family support and what kind of support do they need to be able to adapt to these?
JLS: Many employers already sense there is a ‘ticking time bomb’ around eldercare, with later retirement and longer-lived relatives, and yet do not find the budgets to tackle this issue with the same vigour as the parent transition. Perhaps this is because the need is more diverse, more hidden, and yet it can impact people at crucial moments in their career and when they have a great deal of experience, relationships and knowledge. This is just one area: smart employers who see the choices people have about the way they sell their services to employers could choose to make employment (versus contracting) into a more wraparound type of support and resourcing for life in order to encourage their well trained talent to be loyal.