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Caroline Artis, a partner at Ernst & Young, has set up an innovative parenting network which allows parents to share their concerns and find the support they need to balance work and family issues.
Caroline Artis is a tax partner at global professional services firm Ernst & Young, but she admits to feeling awkward about keeping in touch with the office when she went on maternity leave in 2004. “I felt that if I rang people in the office I would be bothering them,” she says.
However, the few times she came into the office she realised how important it was to stay abreast of what was happening and how quickly things changed. She decided to do something about it and when she returned to work she set up the firm’s Parents’ Network to help mums on maternity leave reintegrate better into the workplace.
Since it was set up in 2005 the network has taken on a life of its own and has become a powerful advisory and support group for parents in the firm. It includes a formal programme of lunchtime seminars on subjects varying from flexible working to dealing with childhood bullying.
Caroline’s first move was to create events which gave women a good reason to come into the office with their babies and catch up while they were there with their line manager. It took a bit of persuasion. “There were a lot of health and safety hurdles,” she says. “Our health and team worried that hordes of out of control toddlers would be throwing themselves around. When we explained that they would be under one year old and not very mobile and would just need changing and feeding facilities and would not be roaming around work areas, they were very encouraging and supportive.”
The network also produces support leaflets for parents, providing advice and help for parents who join the firm from other employers. Most of the lunchtime sessions enable women on maternity leave to meet up with mums who are back at work and share their experiences.
Every event that the network holds has a feedback form so that it is constantly receiving views on what it is doing and how to improve it. In the last couple of years, says Caroline, it has become clear that dads are keen to have support as well as mums. She says they are more likely to attend sessions on practical issues like reading to their kids or dealing with sibling rivalry. Sleep problems is a popular topic for both sexes. For mums, guilt is a big concern. Caroline says the session on guilt is about managing it in a way that you feel comfortable with. She cites research showing non-working parents only spend one hour more a week of quality time with their children than working parents.
What the seminars do best is to bring parents together so they realise that there are many other people in the firm grappling with the same issues. These seminars are videoed and can be downloaded by staff who cannot attend, or watched by parents’ groups in other locations around the UK.
The seminars, which often feature parenting experts provided by specialist agencies, last two hours, but people can just stay for the first hour for the speaker and questions or come for the second hour which is more focused on networking and sharing advice over sandwiches.
Caroline says that the more the network achieves the more she wants to do. The network’s committee of parents is looking at how parents can support children doing GCSEs and A Levels, advice for foster parents and whether they need to widen the network to include parents of young adults as many still consider themselves to be working parents when their children are aged up to 25. She has also seen the creation of a forum for parents of children with special needs. This is a forum where parents exchange knowledge about legal and medical systems and also have the opportunity to connect with someone in a similar situation to themselves. Caroline says the scope of the network has to some extent grown with her own son who is now four years old and will soon be beginning school. She works flexibly, taking the extra holiday.
Occasionally she will work a nine-day fortnight and she says that effectively she works full time for 40 weeks of the year. She takes five weeks as block leave and then takes the other five weeks as odd days here and there when work permits. Fortunately, she has a nanny who matches her flexible work schedule, but she thinks her work schedule could change when her son starts school, with more homeworking a likely scenario. Other colleagues also work flexibly, such as working a four-day week or taking extra holiday, as Caroline does.
It all works, says Caroline, because people want to make it work and because of the support that is provided. She describes the Parents’ Network as being an important extension of the type of networking that naturally happens for parents at home – whether through ante-natal classes or at the school gate. “The Parents’ Network allows people who have lost the day to day contact with such networks through their return to work to share their concerns and support each other in the workplace.”