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How can employers best help working parents? Emma Neary sets out what has worked for her, from support through IVF and flexible working to asking parents what they want, and trusting them to deliver.
At the end of last year my husband and I moved house, began renovations, our son started school and I joined Moneysupermarket Group. It was a busy time. Yet incredibly, despite the huge changes in our lives, I feel more in control, happier, productive and balanced than ever before. I’m spending more quality time with my son, I go to the gym three times a week, and my husband and I are no longer ships that pass in the night. I finally feel I’m me again.
Well, I’m fortunate that my employer allowed me to pause and step off the treadmill I’d been pounding for years. My manager’s trust and encouragement to work flexibly gave me space to pause, reflect and be more accountable and in control for the life I lead. I honestly feel I’ve achieved more in the last six months than I’d done in the previous year, both at work and at home.
I’ve hidden a lot from employers before through fear of the consequence. Our parenting journey has been tough and a lot of it unrecognised and unspoken about; whether that was our IVF journey, through to starting back at work pretending everything was ok and my eyes weren’t being held open by matchsticks after sleepless nights. And the guilt….. the guilt at not being able to be in the office for longer than my contracted hours, as the nursery run beckoned, and the guilt at not being there for my son.
So, why am I sharing this? Well, there’s a lot of talk about flexible working, wellbeing and balance, but there are still too many companies and managers that just don’t get it. They‘re often interested in the “work” you rather than the whole you. There’s also lots of working parents out there who don’t realise there’s an alternative and life can be different.
Offering flexibility and support to people is a win-win. Happier, more productive colleagues on the one hand and companies who thrive by attracting and retaining brilliant people on the other. Unless, of course, you hire the wrong people, but that’s a whole other post!
Here’s my take on considerations for companies and managers who are looking to support working parents more effectively.
This is really simple and not just applicable to working parents! Make sure 1-2-1s with your team aren’t just about discussing a to-do list. Take time to ask how people are, understand what pressures they may be under outside of work and give them an opportunity to discuss things on their mind. Not everyone will want to do this, of course, but giving that opportunity and showing support is key. The journey to parenthood is full of highs and lows and an understanding manager can make all the difference. Who are you going to work hardest for – the manager who doesn’t want to know or the one who cares and supports you?
Typically, any policies and letter templates haven’t been reviewed for years and are outdated and disappointingly formal. Parenthood is an exciting time, but it can be a minefield to navigate. Help parents out by giving then timely information in a positive and supportive way. This can also be a very vulnerable time for people with financial concerns and nervousness around who will be taking over their role while they’re out of the office. An understand and supportive culture will result in higher engagement and retention levels. It’s such a waste to lose great talent because people feel devalued as soon as they announce their pregnancy or request parental leave.
Make sure you’re competitive with your approach to parental leave. I’ve experienced sickness policies paying out 26 weeks full pay whilst someone on maternity leave is on little more than the statutory minimum. Think about supporting and retaining your talent. At Moneysupermarket Group, irrespective of gender or the way in which people become parents, parents can take up to six months of shared parental leave each, at full pay. New mothers and primary caregivers/adopters benefit from up to six months maternity/adoption leave at full pay, whilst new fathers and partners primary caregivers/adopters can take up to four weeks at full pay for paternity/partner leave.
For any parent who takes time off it’s daunting returning to work. So much can change even in a short space of time and I’ve seen people shaking with nerves as they take their first steps back into the office. My advice to managers is to speak to anyone who is taking an extended period of parental leave and ask them how much they want to keep in touch. Some people like a regular call to understand what’s happening in the office, whereas others want to focus on being a parent and forget about work until the time’s right for them.
When people are thinking about returning to work ask them how they’re feeling about it; sometimes just being able to talk can help. Consider buddying them up with someone who has been through a similar experience so that they can offer empathy and support. Be mindful that parents returning to work often feel under pressure to show that nothing has changed but their lives, at home, will have changed beyond recognition.
Look out for signs behind the front of bravado that they may just need someone to talk to. Let them know it’s ok when nursery calls to say their child is ill and they need to leave. Don’t add to the guilt they’re already feeling. At my last company, a lovely lady called Angela Spencer set up a support group for parents called “The Baby Diaries”. The group met regularly over lunch supporting each other and looking at ways to improve the experience for future parents. Initiatives like this are brilliant.
This really does make all the difference but flexible means flexible. Go for broke, after all you’ve hired people for a reason. Trust them to get on and do their job and review their performance by what they contribute and achieve rather than how many hours they’re in the office. Working in a presenteeism culture or one that professes flexible working, but in reality comes with a long list of rules, can breed disengagement through people not feeling trusted. And inflexibility can mean that people simply can’t return to work as their childcare arrangements don’t co-ordinate with work demands.
Working flexibly allows me to pick my son up from school on a Friday and take him to the playground with the other mums. I get to enjoy that special time with him and it’s helped me make friends in the village we’ve moved to. Typically, I make the time up over the weekend. Sundays are personally great for me to prepare for the following week or tackle something that’s been on my mind. I’ll also work from home when I need to focus on something complex or have no meetings to go to. My team is split across three sites and we feel connected through the tech we use and the regular communication. I don’t have to see them every day to know how they’re performing.
When you’re considering your approach to flexible working start with listening to and understanding the needs of your workforce. What would make a difference to them? How would they see flexible working impact on their teams and what they can deliver? Are there any barriers to flexible working e.g technology? There’s no one size fits all, but the basic premise of giving people freedom to innovate and be their best selves will reap rewards in engagement, productivity and retention.
For more information on Moneysupermarket Group’s approach to flexible working, please click here.
I hope you found this of interest. It’s been a real eye opener for me to have this level of flexibility and support as a working mum and I feel I’m a better person for it.