There is no such thing as a traditional working pattern for parents; a household may consist of two full-time workers, one full-time and one part-time worker, two part-timers, or a sole breadwinner.
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- With different working patterns for parents, a variety of support measures will help recruit and retain valued staff.
- Shared parental leave and flexible-working policies can help parents balance their work and home life commitments.
- Parental networks, coaching and online information hubs can provide over and above the minimum level of support for staff.
With flexible working requests and shared parental leave becoming commonplace, employers need to consider whether their support provision for working parents goes above and beyond the legal minimum.
What is the legal minimum?
As a bare minimum, rights for working parents include paid and unpaid maternity leave; paid paternity leave; paid and unpaid adoption leave; shared parental leave; the right to request flexible working and time off for dependants.
In addition to these requirements, it is becoming popular among employers to offer enhanced shared parental leave. For example, over and above the 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay which can now be shared between parents, some organisations are offering enhancements such as additional pay on top of the statutory entitlement.
Supporting working parents can bring business benefits to an employer. Offering additional benefits will help with recruitment and retention, as well as reducing the costs associated with replacing someone who might otherwise not have been able to return to work. Laura Czapiewski, product manager for childcare vouchers at Edenred, says: “It’s a retention issue; it could encourage people to stay at their organisation.”
What can be offered?
Becoming expectant parents can be a daunting period for employees, just as it can be trying to find childcare cover for teenagers in the summer holidays. Employers can offer support to staff in the form of advice and education. Articles, webinars, online information hubs and speaker sessions can cover a range of topics and appeal to many working parents. An employer can arrange these, or tap into the additional services offered by many childcare voucher providers. For example, Edenred offers access to an online hub with information and resources for working parents. Czapiewski says: “The benefit is that it’s all in one place. For working parents, time is of the essence and [they can] have all the information at [their] fingertips.”
In July 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the launch of the government’s tax-free childcare scheme will be delayed until 2017 from its initial date of autumn 2015. This means employers have longer to implement a scheme if they do not already offer one, and employees have more time to sign up to employer-supported childcare. The delay to tax-free childcare could be a relief to many working parents, says Jo Dalby, finance director at Busy Bees. “The longevity of the scheme, and the more people that can join it for the better savings, is very important,” she explains.
Larger employers can also provide on-site workplace nurseries. The cost of a child’s place in an on-site nursery is exempt from tax and National Insurance contributions and can be paid for through a salary sacrifice arrangement. Again, a workplace nursery can be a strong recruitment and retention tool, but it depends on the size of the organisation and the resources it has available.
Emergency childcare is also seen as a valuable benefit for working parents. This is offered by many childcare voucher providers to help out parents if they run into trouble with their usual childcare, or if a childminder is ill, for example. “There is a lot that [employers] can do because all that makes a huge difference to parents financially,” says Dalby.
Employers can also help to signpost working parents to find the childcare that best suits their needs. Services can offer advice and support on things such as maternity nurses, nannies, nurseries, childminders and schools in the local area. Sarah-Jane Butler, founder of one such provider, Parental Choice, understands the demands placed on working parents and their employers. “Where we see this as really vital is [to prevent] that loss of talent and experience when a person decides not to go back to work because they can’t find the right childcare or it’s too stressful,” she says.
Parenting networks and coaching
Parenting networks are becoming more popular but do not have to be the preserve of large employers. A way of putting working parents in touch with others in similar situations, networks can be run by the employer at little cost to the organisation. They can be used to organise speaker sessions and offer advice and information on a range of topics.
Coaching for parents can also be a valuable benefit, and again can be used as a strong recruitment and retention tool. Employers can offer coaching for expectant parents, before they take leave and after they have returned to work.
Whatever benefits an employer chooses to support its working parents, offering more than simply the bare minimum helps to ensure the organisation retains the talent and experience that might otherwise be lost after parental leave.
Case study: EY supports working families with multiple options
Professional services firm EY takes a long-term approach to supporting working parents. It is mindful of the life events that many of its employees will experience during their time at the organisation, which includes starting a family.
Its approach is made up of a number of components to ensure that it is able to respond to employees’ changing home situations and offer them a high level of support.
Maggie Stilwell, managing partner for talent at EY, says: “One of the first elements we offer working parents is flexible working. For all of our people, at whatever level of the organisation, we are empowering them to make sensible, individual decisions around how, when and where they work.
“Flexible working is very much used by our working dads, not just mums. It’s something that draws people to EY because they hear of people doing it, and being supported doing it, and how that makes a difference to their ability to manage a family.”
EY also offers all its working families access to its parents’ network – just one of its 14-plus employee networks. “It offers a variety of topics that are of interest to working parents,” explains Stilwell. “It offers a buddy scheme for when [an employee] returns to work, and speakers, for example, on helping a child to read.”
The organisation also uses the network to consult with staff – for example, when it considered introducing shared parental leave (SPL).
EY launched enhanced SPL policies in April 2015. “It’s still early days but we expect between 5% and 10% of our men who are parents to take SPL, and I think it will snowball,” says Stilwell.
In addition, EY offers coaching sessions for employees before they take up parental leave, during their leave and on return to work. Stilwell says: “It’s about getting a better transition for people as they come out of the workplace, and then thinking about how they return. We manage that transition more successfully for the business and less stressfully for the indivdual.”
Viewpoint: Working parents need long-term benefits
The Working Families shared parental leave (SPL) pioneers list highlights those employers offering above and beyond the minimum legal requirements for SPL. Not only are these employers offering enhanced SPL benefits, but the majority also support their expectant parents throughout the pregnancy or adoption process. They, along with many other organisations, have recognised just how important this is and the long-term benefits it can bring.
Fathers have the legal right to unpaid leave to attend two antenatal appointments with their expectant partner. However, some organisations allow fathers paid time off or give them the opportunity to work flexibly so they can attend all appointments. With young fathers demonstrating an ever more involved role in their children’s early years, this can be an important motivator and engagement mechanism.
Parenting networks offer expectant and new parents mentoring and support during this exciting but also nerve wracking time. They are also a useful way for organisations to better understand the needs of their workforce.
Good and early communication is vital for ensuring that the leave process is managed smoothly, and can help both line managers and the employee plan for absence.
If a new parent takes only a short period of leave, it can be easy for colleagues to forget that their lives have experienced a huge change. Looking after a baby is exhausting – both parents are likely to be sleep-deprived, and this can take a huge toll. Simple actions like avoiding booking early or late meetings and allowing flexible start and finish times can smooth the transition back to work.
Many organisations have already recognised the importance of supporting expectant and new parents in the workplace and for two simple reasons: recruitment and retention, and gender diversity. It makes sound business sense to protect the investment made in recruiting and developing staff by focusing on retaining talent after they have taken time out for family reasons, and any improvement in retention is a significant factor in achieving better gender diversity, especially at the higher levels of an organisation.
Julie McCarthy is head of policy, research and communications at Working Families