Why a life cycle approach to work matters

Ahead of our 10th anniversary awards, where she will be the keynote speaker, Caroline Waters talks to workingmums.co.uk about the future of work and why a life cycle approach works.

Gig working in professional firms


Caroline Waters is Deputy Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Vice President of Carers UK and Founder and CEO of CW Consulting Box. She will be the keynote speaker at workingmums.co.uk’s 10th anniversary Top Employer Awards next week where she will speak about the need for a life cycle approach to work focusing on particular pinch points where employees might need extra support. Here she speak to workingmums.co.uk about why it matters and about how employers need to adapt to future workforce issues.

Workingmums.co.uk: Have you seen more interest from employers in taking a life cycle approach to the workforce in recent years and if so, why do you think this is?

Caroline Waters: An increasing number of employers are looking at the life cycle approach to people policies. There are a number of reasons for this. One of the most urgent is the sheer complexity of supporting and developing a multi-generational and increasingly diverse workforce. Many employers are beginning to understand that policies based on what unites us are also powerfully engaging and create collaborative cultures. For example, there is growing recognition that a young Muslim man who has just become a parent for the first time may have as much in common with another new dad as he has with his own generation or other young Muslim men. There is also a much greater prevalence of caring in society and carers in our workforces. People can, quite literally, become carers over night at any stage in their life or career.

Employers understand that retaining these very diverse individuals means not making assumptions about what is needed but instead creating the broadest possible policy profile that offers the information and flexibility that makes a carer see that managing work and care is possible whatever career or life stage you are at. The lifestyle approach is also a powerful retention tool. With virtual full employment and greater career mobility employers are seeing that if their policies demonstrate that they have the best interests of their people at the heart of their organisation – whatever happens in your life we’ll stick with you – people pay that back with their loyalty, engagement and their discretionary effort.

Quite a few employers now have carer policies, etc, but are they taking a joined up approach to workforce planning and support?

Caroline Waters: Generally we are still pretty poor at workforce planning in this country. It’s a complex business, but one of those areas that may benefit from the application of Artificial Intelligence in the future. On the bright side, I am coming across a lot more HR/People functions who are trying to plan ahead, to anticipate the changing needs of their workforce looking at both future workforces and the evolving needs of those already at work. Whatever happens in the external context people still need to develop, want to have families, need to respond to illness or to caring responsibilities and inevitably we all age!

It’s important to think about planning for and supporting these almost inevitable changes. A pragmatic approach to the life cycle model can help join up the dots and give people real choice. We do need to take a more systemic approach, however. For example, we know that flexibility is critical for carers. The needs of cared for people are rarely static or predictable and carers and employers need to respond. Preparing your workforce by helping them understand what actions they need to take in their 20s and 30s to ensure that they are primed and informed for any future caring responsibilities and ensuring they can be economically, physically and mentally well in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s is, in my opinion, an essential part of a progressive workforce support structure. We also need to think more about joined up experiences. Its great to have flexibility in attendance, but if that means I can’t access training or be a part of the talent pool or never quite have my contribution properly reflected by the performance management process then you’re offering me a job and not the career I deserve.

What do you think are the main pinch points that employers need to plan for in an employee’s working life?

Caroline Waters: Life is such an individual experience its hard to generalise. You can quite literally become a carer over night however – as I did. My mum broke her hip and in that minute my world changed. There’s no doubt the onset of caring can be overwhelming. There is lots of evidence indicating that if employers don’t pour information and support, including from other carers, into the first six weeks people can feel so overwhelmed that they believe the only option is to leave work. This often happens when people are in their 40s and at a significant point in their career. The employer has invested a great deal in the individual who in turn has invested in their career, making great retention strategies a must. Many carers are also caught in the middle, the so-called sandwich generation, juggling work and often being the only generation earning, while bringing up children and trying to care for older relatives.

What do you think are the main challenges employers face in addressing them?

Caroline Waters: Normalising caring and developing an understanding that such things will be everyday occurrences are key to managing pinch points. Again, it’s important that this is not about keeping the employee in a job but creating the strategies, policies and practical tools that enable carers to continue to contribute, develop and progress their careers. The carers passport, now becoming widely used, is just such a tool; helping both employer and employee work together to find the solutions that really work for both parties and ensuring access to a range of roles and opportunities while caring.

How important is the human part of HR in a world of automation?

Caroline Waters: How automation will impact the world of work is still unclear. A prediction that I am currently finding hard to believe is that this year we’ll see the deployment of 31m domestic and 2.6m industrial robots …… in the US economy alone. We worry about working with robots, but the odds are we’ll actually be more likely to live with them! In this new world some predict a shift in the tasks needing to be done at work towards management, leadership and softer, more human skills – I’m not sure I buy this when it also proposes that the workforce will be less human. Maybe the key skill that we will need to develop and grow will be supporting and teaching a human workforce to collaborate with a largely non-human workforce? Or adjusting to the fact that humans will no longer be the ‘top of the food chain’ and what that means for human workers and service receivers. Either way humans will still need to be thought about and supported. Human life in all its glorious complexity still continues regardless of what other ‘life’ forms we encounter along the journey!

How important is retention in a world of greater mobility of employees, increasing disruption, gig working, etc?

Caroline Waters: The world of work is continuing to evolve at pace. There has been a steady increase in self-employment, now about 15% of the UK workforce, and gig economy working now representing circa 4.4 % over recent years. It seems likely that this trend will increase and, when considered with a greater appetite for career change and career transition as people face extended working lives, it seems likely that an ever greater proportion of our workforces will be increasingly mobile. Retention of key individuals will still be important, but in an increasingly small number of roles. In this new environment it will be a critical advantage to create porous organisations where people join and leave fluidly, known talent is kept warm and engaged whomever they work for and work is ‘seeded ‘ to a large pool of suitably qualified and tested workers who aren’t necessarily employees.

Given the place of change, which is only likely to speed up, it seems to me that employment and therefore retention as we know it will become a rather odd concept. Why recruit people for the long term when jobs and the skills needed to do them are likely to be transformed in ever shorter timescales? After all we probably haven’t even invented the jobs most of today’s 17 year olds will undertake when they enter the workforce.


Understanding the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population is vital if we want to create productive, innovative and inclusive multi-generational teams as we all lead longer working lives. workingwise.co.uk is a job and community site, from the people behind workingmums.co.uk, specially focused on older workers looking for flexibility and improved work-life balance, and the employers who recognise what they have to offer.

Find out more

Carer demands are something you have personal experience of. How important are personal stories for pushing change?

Caroline Waters: Change happens when two very impatient factors are aligned. Government, policy makers, leaders and the public know and understand the issue and feel an emotional engagement with the change it requires. I call it light and heat. Personal stories shed light on issues and allow people to put themselves in others’ shoes and feel what it’s really like to be a carer. When people feel that caring could and probably will play a part in their lives they start to emotionally engage and to support the need for greater understanding and change – they bring heat to the debate.

It’s this combination that makes governments act to create an infrastructure of care, service providers start to really listen to what carers and the cared for actually need and employers see carers in their workforce as a normal part of life and employment they must be prepared for. Personal stories deliver this on every level – we need to tell these stories more often and we need the media to step up and share them responsively so that we create the light and heat that lead to sustainable change and normalise the response to a social issue that is also evident in our different workforces.

There are more and more different employee initiatives and networks springing up. Is there a danger of initiative fatigue and how can this be addressed?

Caroline Waters: Initiatives and networks pop up to fill a need. if they are still being created there’s a reason for that and I’m not convinced it’s actually an issue in and of itself. Carers need support locally and we need to move away from seeing carers as a huge, homogenous group. In my experience there are many different sorts of carers and many different types of people needing care. We need to respond to and support young carers, sandwich carers or working carers and start to distinguish between those caring for a disabled child, a partner with a progressive illness or elderly parents who are physically frail or have dementia. For all these people ever more sophisticated support and knowledge is needed. I’m glad that the support infrastructure recognises this and continues to grow and expand.

What do you think is the biggest change you have seen in HR over your working life?

Caroline Waters: I have had a very long career in HR! Personnel, as it was once called, was often about offering care and support, but also about enforcement of rules and managing people processes on behalf of line managers. It was often provided locally by people who drifted into the role and there was little consistency or investment in either the people or the policies they lived by. I have seen rationalisation, standardisation of best practice, cost profiling and management and, with the advent of HR Business Partners, the migration of the duty of care to line managers – in short a massive professionalisation of the function. Much of this was enabled by greater automisation and the development of navigational data in the 1980s.

By far the biggest change though, has been the shift from comfort provider and policeman to a strategic business partner with a seat around the leadership table. In the future HR must follow the lead of the futurologists! They will need to anticipate demographic, political, legislative, economic and environmental change and engage and advise organisational leaders, helping conceive and plan a path to a sustainably inclusive and successful future for their organisation and their workforces, whatever shape they may take.

Does employer engagement with these more human issues make them more effective generally [eg more understanding of their clients/market etc]?

Caroline Waters: Absolutely! Not only do they gain happier more productive employees, but they create inclusive workforces where talent, whatever form it takes, is valued. A workforce representative of their client base is more attuned and intuitive about client needs and the development of products and services. There is also a greater likelihood of creating a workforce that feels valued and confident and is more open to change, sensitive to the external context and has a greater understanding of the opportunities presented by new markets. They will also be able to attract and retain more talent, building a diverse leadership team.

As I said before, if you believe in and support your people through the stages of their lives they will repay you with engagement and productivity, leading to a broader more diverse talent pool. A recent report by McKinsey demonstrated that greater diversity on the senior executive team corresponded to a significant uplift in business performance! This isn’t just about being nice to people; it also makes good business sense.

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