Craig Curran and Sarah Farquharson are the first couple at Virgin Money to take Shared Parental Leave. Both work for the company which enhances Shared Parental Pay and they say it seemed to be too good to be true that they could both benefit from the policy.
Sarah, who was on the cusp of promotion when she got pregnant and was worried about taking a lot of time off, says she had to check the policy four or five times. Sarah took the first six months off and Craig took three months. They were both off for one month together – something Sarah refers to as “the training period”. It was a chance for Craig to get to know their son Spencer’s routines.
Craig says: “It was good to have the overlap. I did not appreciate how hard it was being at home with Spencer and trying to stay in a routine.” Sarah adds: “When I went on maternity leave I think Craig thought I was pottering around and going out to lunch with friends. When he took over Spencer was crawling and couldn’t be left for a second. He soon realised that it was not so easy.”
Craig thinks the fact that Virgin Money enhance SPL makes a big difference as to whether dads take the time off. Parents on SPL get full pay for the first three months. The second three months are on half pay. It can be taken in one block or separate blocks. “For us it made financial sense as Sarah earns more than me,” he says.
Craig says his work and line manager were very supportive and that several dads have taken Shared Parental Leave – he spoke to one before he went on leave and another friend is going on SPL next year. He and Sarah, who are based in Newcastle, wrote an article about their experience which has had 1,000 views and provoked some positive interest.
Going on SPL has not damaged his career prospects. In fact Craig was promoted the day before he went on leave and returned to a new job. He kept in touch while he was off, but says he was a bit nervous going back after his leave. “It was a bit like the first day of school and I was the new kid,” he says, but it just took a couple of days to get back into the swing of things. “People were very welcoming. It was like I had never been away,” he says. That support has increased his commitment to the company.
Sarah says that she felt a little guilty about going back to work and being able to have adult conversations and go to the gym. “I felt guilty because I knew what it was like,” she says. “People underestimate the hard work.” Sharing that work means the couple are more able to work as a team now with regard to family issues.
Craig felt the whole process of choosing how to take the SPL was very straightforward. He adds that it helped Sarah to know he was looking after Spencer when she returned. Craig admits he does miss Spencer, but he has been using his accrued holiday to reduce his working week. From next year he will work a nine-day fortnight. Sarah works from home one day a week and condenses her full-time hours, meaning she mostly has every Wednesday off. That gives her a good break in the week and she says that works well for her psychologically. Sarah’s mum lives nearby and has given up work to look after the baby.
“If anyone asks me about it I would say just do it. You never get that time again,” says Craig. Having taken the leave he feels more confident of taking time off to look after Spencer if he is ill or there is a childcare problem. “I would 100% do it again,” he says, “and next time I would take more time off.”
Sarah, who is Colleague Performance and Development Manager in the Customer Service Delivery section of Virgin Money, says the flexible hours she has mean she is happy to give a bit of flexibility back to her employer if there is a lot work on. “As long as I get my work done and people know where I am it doesn’t matter,” she says.
She tends to do a lot of meetings when she is in the office and uses Fridays, her day at home, to go through all the action points from the meetings. She says Craig, who is an underwriter, has less ability to work from home, although Virgin Money is looking at creating some homeworking pilots for different parts of the business. “They are keen to encourage working dads,” she says. That includes encouraging discussions around flexible working where, says Sarah, the assumption among most employers is often that men want to work full time, even if they have taken SPL. Virgin Money recently held a panel discussion about flexible working for International Men’s Day.
“The company is a completely different place to two years ago,” says Sarah. “We are doing so much more than before, for instance, launching the Women in Finance charter. The support is there. There is mentoring for women after maternity leave, for example.” She adds that there is a need for more accessible female role models at senior level. She hopes she can be one in the not too distant future.