Family-friendly benefits tend to evolve in line with how working parents’ needs and requirements change. Flexible working, for example, has become a normal way of life for many.
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- Some employers have integrated shared parental leave regulations into their family-friendly benefits policy.
- The end of childcare vouchers could cause a decline in workplace support for working parents in some organisations.
- Employers should have open conversations with staff to find out what benefits would help to support their family.
Now the landscape looks set to develop further as family-friendly benefits have been thrust to the forefront of employers’ minds after new shared parental leave (SPL) regulations came into force on 1 December 2014.
Under the new rules, employees who are expecting a baby or are adopting a child can send their employer a notice of eligibility and the intention to share parental leave with their partner. This is driving many employers to review their family-friendly benefits policies.
Some organisations have already incorporated the new SPL rules into their existing policies. Law firm Linklaters, for example, is offering parents and adopters up to six months’ fully-paid leave, subject to certain conditions, while Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and Shell are offering their staff enhanced paternity packages.
Many employers are still considering how best to implement SPL, and are pondering how much to enhance working fathers’ paternity rights in addition to SPL. They are also considering whether to match their existing maternity benefits, whether they have the budget with which to do so and, if not, whether they should reduce their maternity package to enable them to tweak their paternity package.
Ben Black, managing director of working parent services provider My Family Care, says: “If an employer is really going to embrace SPL, it should give dads and mums exactly the same packages. A brave employer would give dads a bit more support and cut down its maternity package, but I cannot see too many organisations grasping that nettle.”
Initial take-up expected to be low
But take-up of SPL is expected to be low, at least in the short term, as employers and employees take time to learn the new rules. “SPL is complicated enough and drafted badly enough that employers have had to stand back and get their heads around it to work out what their organisation is going to do,” says Black.
Jo Dalby, finance director at benefits provider Busy Bees, adds: “I’m not sure it has been that well advertised, so not a lot is known about it.”
But low take-up could also be due to deep-rooted cultural issues within an organisation. Dr Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organisation at Cranfield School of Management, says: “I do not think it is likely we will see mass applications in the first instance as there are still cultural issues, such as fathers not being used to taking parental leave, and the expectation that the mother will take it.”
Impact of the end of childcare vouchers
The end of the current childcare voucher system could also motivate some employers to refresh and even enhance their family-friendly benefits packages and, in the process, drive the cultural shift to make fathers more comfortable with requesting SPL.
In his 2014 Budget, Chancellor George Osborne confirmed that the current voucher system will be replaced in autumn 2015 by a tax-free childcare scheme, worth up to £2,000 of childcare costs a year.
My Family Care’s Black says: “I think 75% of employers would claim to be family-friendly because they have childcare vouchers, so once they can’t say that, they will have to work out what to do, because they won’t be able to hide behind their childcare voucher scheme any more.”
But there is a danger that removing the existing voucher regime could have the opposite effect, and result in a decline in the number of employers that offer family-friendly benefits. Employees that have taken up the benefit by the changeover date will be able to continue in their existing employer’s scheme, but new staff will not be able to join.
Julie McCarthy, head of policy, research and communications at work-life balance charity Working Families, says: “We have lobbied [government] ministers about that, and said we think that taking childcare vouchers away from employers is moving them one step further away from a discussion about childcare.
“We need them to be involved in that discussion, because good childcare is central to economic stability and the economic survival of the family.”
Employer commitment may require further regulation
McCarthy believes yet more regulations may be required to force employers to commit to providing support for working families.
But shareholder pressure for employers to meet their business objectives, such as the desire to become an employer of choice (a common objective for more progressive family-friendly organisations) may be enough to motivate some employers to enhance their working family support. Increased pressure from parents themselves may also persuade some employers to review their approach.
How family-friendly benefits will continue to evolve
Employers could start by talking to the working parents they employ about the support they need and want, be it childcare or flexible working.
“Too many employers assume they know what their employees want, based on their own preferences or on cost, or are scared of having that conversation,” says McCarthy.
“We need to encourage an open dialogue, because that is the only way we will move things forward and see real cultural change.”
As part of this open dialogue, employers must consider tangential support that extends, for example, to parental networks, such as the network at Citi bank, which is subsidised by the firm but organised by staff (see case study, below).
Organisations also need to consider eldercare support, given that by 2018, the number of older people needing care will outstrip the number of adult offspring able to provide it, according to the Institute of Public Policy Research paper, The generation strain: Collective solutions to care in an ageing society, published in April 2014.
This requires employers to be mindful of the legal requirements around staff with caring responsibilities, which, under the Equality Act 2010, mean that organisations must not discriminate against staff who are caring for, and therefore ’associated’ with, someone who is elderly or disabled.
A comprehensive family-friendly policy that offers such a wide range of support can be an invaluable tool within organisations’ employee value propositions and talent management strategies, so it is time for them to start reviewing how best to develop their approach.
Case study: Citi introduces shared parental leave policy to help equalise support for working parents
Global bank Citi has spent more than a year devising its shared parental leave (SPL) policy to add to its comprehensive family-friendly benefits package, which is designed to help create an egalitarian workplace, retain talent and boost its employer brand.
The result is a package that offers up to 26 weeks’ fully-paid SPL for each working parent planning to share leave with their partner.
Carolanne Minashi, head of diversity, employee relations and employee engagement at Citi, says: “We ended up with a policy massively governed by our intention and priority around equal treatment.”
The organisation conducted an extensive staff survey of working parents who had taken maternity, paternity or adoption leave in the last three years in an effort to identify potential SPL take-up in the future.
It found that 20% of the fathers who had taken paternity leave would have been interested in taking SPL, and that 80% of women would have been interested in sharing their leave with their partner.
The bank soft-launched its SPL policy in December 2014 by uploading the policy document on to its intranet site and running campaigns on rolling advertising screens next to its office lifts to raise awareness of the changes.
It has received 10 to 20 staff enquiries about the new regulations, but as yet no formal requests for leave.
Minashi says: “I think most people are on a fact-finding mission right now.”
The bank, which sees 5% of its 8,000-strong UK workforce become new parents each year, is offering SPL in addition to its existing family-friendly benefits, which include up to 26 weeks’ maternity leave and two weeks’ paternity leave, all on full pay.
The employer also offers staff flexible working, back-up childcare through working family service provider My Family Care, parent workshops provided by coaching firm Talent Talks, and healthcare support, such as phone-based health visitors, provided by Bupa.
It also runs training courses for managers with staff who are planning to take, are in the midst of, or are returning from parental leave, and funds a parent network, which runs sessions on topics such as parenting skills, for about 1,000 members.
Employers should be prepared for SPL requests
Shared parental leave (SPL) is just around the corner, so employers must get ready.
Under the new rules, eligible women will be able to curtail their right to maternity leave and enable their partner to take shared parental leave. In this way, mums and dads, including those who are adopting, will, for the first time, be able to share up to 50 weeks’ leave and 37 weeks’ pay in their child’s first year.
Employers should already be geared up for dealing with employees who want to take advantage of the new rights. The first notices of curtailment of maternity leave from women, and of intention to take SPL from men, will have started hitting desks around 8 February.
The government and arbitration service Acas have issued guidance outlining employers’ responsibilities, which organisations should read, particularly those that consider SPL just another bureaucratic headache and feel challenged by the new flexibilities.
But, in the long term, employers should view the new rules as an opportunity to grasp and turn to their advantage. Just as many employers use enhanced maternity leave as a means of holding on to female talent, blue-chip employers, including the civil service, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Citi, have already pledged to enhance SPL for men as well as women.
Employers need to understand that parents’ attitudes about who should do what when a baby arrives have changed considerably over time, so if they are serious about attracting and retaining the best talent, they must ask themselves whether they can afford not to review and update their approach to working family support.
Jeremy Davies is head of policy at the Fatherhood Institute