URW: An inclusive family support network

Louise Haffenden – People Director UK and Italy at URW talks to workingmums.co.uk about its award-winning family network.


How do employers best support working families and ensure that support extends to every type of family set-up?

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW), the company responsible for Westfield shopping centres, is clearly doing something right. Elected joint winner of the 2022 Working Families’ Best for All Families award, it offers a range of advice, support
and policies that recognise the challenges faced by modern families. We spoke to Louise Haffenden, People Director UK and Italy, to find out how this has evolved over recent years.

Family network

One important development was the creation of the URW Family Network which began, fairly informally, around five years ago. It was started as a way of bringing parents together to communicate and share their experiences and get support through a buddy system if they are about to go on paternity or maternity leave. The network came out of a collaboration between HR and Working Families on how to build a more parent-friendly culture.

The network is flagged as part of the induction process, on screens in communal office areas and through interactive campaigns such as a fun dad/child interview for Father’s Day on ‘what daddy does’ . Through it, parents are able to get information on everything from the company’s parental leave policy and how their lives will change as a result of having children to the transition from one to two children.

Over the last years the network has expanded and become more focused on areas such as policy, but Haffenden says the emphasis is on sharing practical ideas and suggestions, for instance, one parent suggested that parents could organise a system for donating their old baby clothes to each other.

She adds that from an HR point of view it provides a good way to check in with parents, make sure that policies are not just box ticking exercises and find out what they really want. So far, parents have responded really well to it and people feel very passionately about it, with several members sitting on its different committees and acting as champions. Covid cemented that support for the network, which helped to bring people together at a challenging time.

Everyone on the network is a parent or carer and the scope of the network is broad: every form of family is included and this feeds into policies, such as adoption and surrogacy leave policies. Everyone has a voice, including those who have become parents on their own through the IVF process.

The network’s work for carers has grown recently and it is trying to mirror what it provides for parents, including its buddy scheme and sessions with expert speakers outlining how difficult it is to be a carer and what support is available.

Policy impact

On the policy front, network members can make suggestions. One such suggestion was a ‘bring your child to work’ day. A committee of around 12 members, representing different areas of the business, works on this with HR support to decide dates and coordinate activities so parents can bring their children in. Retailers, for instance, provide bits for a free goodie bag and the rest is topped up by URW. The day used to be held as a fun event at Christmas, but this year, because of the summer holiday childcare problems, it is also being held on four days across different sites over the summer.

Films and activities mean parents can get some work done while their children are being entertained and fed with pizza and snacks. The older children can visit some of the attractions within the centre for free, such as the climbing wall, bowling or the Upside-down House.

Other family friendly policies include an enhanced parental bereavement policy led by an employee who had been through this and who has good links with child bereavement charities and a hybrid working policy which evolved from the company’s flexible working policy.

Last year, the company launched two additional wellbeing days which people can take as full or part days to spend time with their family. Employees can now work from home two days a week and core hours have been set at 10am-4pm. Flexible working is less of a formal process since Covid and more of a given. In 2021 member feedback resulted in improvements to the company’s Paternity Leave policy, with the timeframe for taking paid paternity increasing from 56 days to a year as well as the reinstatement of holiday purchase and carry over scheme. Moreover, the sharing of personal stories of miscarriage led to the introduction of a Pregnancy Loss Policy.

Practical support

In terms of on the ground support, Haffenden says URW parents in the company who go on parental leave get access to counselling through a return to work programme for first and subsequent children. They have a two-hour session with a trained counsellor which enables them to take a deep dive into how they are feeling and means they can maximise every minute at work. Some parents then go on to further counselling or coaching.

In addition to policy and practice input and parent feedback, the company monitors the wider benefits the network brings. The company, which operates in 12 countries, studies its drop-out statistics regularly to check so it can see if the ratio of men to women is changing at every level and not dropping off in the middle management level, as happens in many companies. That is also testament to whether the support it offers parents and carers is working. As much as is legally possible, the company offers similar benefits across all countries.

Haffenden says that, for now, the URW Family Network continues to grow and is putting an emphasis on real life guidance, the realities of being a working parent and fun.

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