In the last month Unicef have published a report looking at family-friendly workplace policies and asked the question are the world's richest countries family friendly? Out of the 31 European countries how did the UK rank? The answer: not very well! We ranked fourth from bottom surpassing only Cyprus, Greece and Switzerland. This article explores what your business can do to attract working parents and become more 'family friendly.'
Being a modern employer is not just about granting your employees their minimum statutory rights and paying them on time! In general, employees are increasingly looking for workplaces that offer them a good work life balance, not just a good salary package. Employers who offer what employees want are, in turn, being rewarded with quality employees, increased staff retention and as a result, increased service levels, making them more attractive to customers and clients. Productivity increases as absence decreases because after all, a happy employee is less likely to sign themselves off sick for long periods of time or look for work elsewhere.
For the 9 million or so working parents, the search for that elusive package might well include an enhancement of paid maternity/paternity/parental leave entitlement. This might be particularly so for fathers given that current paternity leave is only 2 weeks. Even so, increasing maternity and paternity entitlements is only part of the solution. Once that initial period of leave is over, the challenge of being a working parent continues for many years to come!
Giving working parents control over their working hours is one of the most helpful interventions. The law recognises a right for all employees who have at least 26 weeks' service with their employer to make one request in each 12 month period to work flexibly. However, the legislation also sets out a number of business reasons for refusing the request and, should the employer be so minded, those business reasons can be manipulated to cover pretty much any situation. Let's face it, offering flexible working solely within the statutory confines is unlikely to flag your organisation as a shining beacon in the sea of family friendly workplace offerings!
Prejudice around flexible working still exists. There remain employers that see long hours as a sign of commitment, presenteeism in the office as vital to business function and, work life balance as an issue to be worked around. On the flip side, employees also associate flexible working with negative connotations - particularly men. Men are more likely to believe that working flexibly is seen as negative, would harm their career and cause problems with their managers.
To this end, it is important to take steps to promote flexible working as something which is an acceptable norm and that employees will not be penalised or overlooked if they are not working conventionally. Senior managers working flexibly is a great way of demonstrating this, but just doing something simple like extending the right to request flexible working as a day one right to all employees promotes the ideology that working flexibly is everyday business as usual rather than an earned privilege.
Your business may have a well-established flexible working policy. You may have employees who work partially from home, part time, during term time only or compress their hours into fewer days. Alternatively, maybe you have embraced the more adventurous concepts such as a 'friends and family' style contract where friends and family can swap shifts between them without prior management authorisation. In this case, the focus will be on embedding those policies making sure that there is full senior buy in and leadership support. Training managers on the assessment of the business case for flexibility is vital to equip them with the skills that they need to create a flexible working culture.
A central requirement which is often overlooked is monitoring whether your flexible working offer is actually delivering for your employees. Even with flexible working arrangements in place, parents may often find that they are working into the evenings or longer hours and the increased use of technology can blur the boundaries between working time and family time. In this case, flexible working may be having a negative effect on family life.
Flexible working alone is not going to make the workplace 'family friendly'. It needs to sit alongside jobs which are well designed, comprising of a reasonable workload with outcomes which can be achieved within a sensible number of working hours. Moreover, the use of technology needs to be managed to ensure that it facilitates smarter working rather replacing a culture of 'office presenteeism' with one of 'digital presenteeism'.
In addition to working hours, other perks/policies which may serve to make your workplace more appealing for working parents might include the ability to buy extra time off work, providing subsidised childcare or back-up care arrangements/leave, providing school pick up's, periods of non-consecutive leave, mentor or returner programmes, parent networks or even corporate membership to organisations such as English Heritage enabling employees to benefit from cheaper family days out.
Ultimately, the law on its own is too blunt an instrument to create a truly family friendly workplace, and the initiative for this will always lie with employers. In the current climate, no organisation should want to be left behind as the 'employer of choice' because their competitors have developed flexible and agile working practices. As such, now could be an opportune time to rethink or refresh your parental offering - particularly if you only extend the statutory minimum arrangements to your current employees. Perhaps it is also time to stop talking about a 'work life balance' - this phrase in itself gives rise to the idea that there is a struggle, something always being out of kilter. Instead we could talk about the work life blend...
If you wish to discuss 'family friendly options or policies for your business please speak to one of our team of specialist solicitors in Norwich. We can be contacted on 01603 620508, or please email us.