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Flexibility needs to be more than just a policy

By accommodating employees’ changing needs, a company invests in its future

“Outdated assumptions about the roles of women and men in society are unhelpful, including in the workplace.” Photograph: iStock

“Outdated assumptions about the roles of women and men in society are unhelpful, including in the workplace.” Photograph: iStock


Long-held views of working cultures, including presenteesim and standard working hours, are the main barriers to employers providing flexible working arrangements, but there is much to learn from those who do provide adaptable working practices.

Fully agile offices not only benefit the workplace, but also the family and they allow employees to achieve a healthy work-life balance.

“It is hugely important in today’s society that we are supportive of every family situation; this is not only about supporting families with childcare but also the growing ageing population and the understanding that more and more employees have caring responsibilities for parents and dependents,” Gayle Bowen, partner at law firm Pinsent Masons, says.

Pinsent Masons has implemented several structures and policies recently that promote flexible working.

“Project Sky aims to de-stigmatise working less than standard hours and availing of flexible arrangements by promoting the concept that flexible working can be for everyone, including senior members of the firm. We have profiled people with different flexible working arrangements to ensure that this is not perceived as being just reserved for those with parental or carer responsibilities,” she says.

Taking care of parents

As well as this, in 2015 Pinsent Masons launched PM@PM or Parents Matter at Pinsent Masons, working with Talking Talent, a web “coaching” portal for anyone taking family leave, including specific guidance to support people and their line managers.

Northern Trust has “Working Families Business Resource Council”. The group exists to support families, to raise awareness of family issues at work, and to advise the business on how to be a family-friendly workplace. According to Melíosa O’Caoimh, head of client services at financial services company Northern Trust, initiatives the team run include bring-your-child-to-work day, family mental-health support, and protecting the family online.

“We have a range of family-friendly policies, including a back-up care policy where employees can access emergency care for children and adults if needed. For example, if your child was ill and your nursery wouldn’t accept them for the day, we would provide care arrangements for the day. We have a ‘work-smart’ programme open to all employees. The scheme offers employees the ability to work flexibly from home or other locations, and at different times of the day.

“I’m firmly convinced that investing in people for the personally busy times in their lives comes back in spades at the later career stages.”

Factors for equality

Earlier this year, Accenture published a report, Getting to Equal , which identified the 14 key workplace factors that can accelerate advancement and create a culture of equality, if actioned by business leaders.

“One of these key factors is ‘encouraging equal parental leave’. The research suggests that implementing maternity leave alone is likely to hold women back from career progression, but when companies encourage parental leave for men and women, the negative impact on women’s advancement is cancelled out completely,” Dr Michelle Cullen, managing director and head of inclusion and diversity at Accenture in Ireland, says.

“Too often, it is assumed that only women need or care about family-friendly policies, but men are also part of families, and changing the culture to encourage men to also avail of family-friendly policies is critical for the next generation. Outdated assumptions about the roles of women and men in society are unhelpful, including in the workplace. Gender equality is not a women’s issue, it never was. It is a human issue, and always was,” she says.

For family-friendly workplaces to progress, the culture needs to adapt on a continuous basis to the needs of all parents, irrespective of gender, and to the needs of modern families and dual-career parents, Cullen says.

“It’s very important to have a culture that enables us to really listen to what an individual may need at any given time, and the agility to be able to find arrangements that work throughout someone’s career. Our primary aim and focus is on creating and sustaining a culture that supports families of all types, and offering employees the support they may require as their needs and circumstances change,” she says.

New technology

New technology including digital communication and collaboration offers flexibility which enables people to stay connected and to strike a balance between work and personal life.

“Our work environment uses the latest technologies to support the increasingly mobile and distributed nature of our work. Used thoughtfully, this has huge benefits for families, and work,” Cullen says.

Despite all the good work that is being done by individual organisations, Ireland is still behind many other developed countries, Nordic countries in particular, in terms of supports for working parents.

“Childcare costs are extremely high in Ireland and school days are short. There is also a large imbalance between the paid time off given to mothers versus fathers,” Eimear McCarthy, audit partner and respect and inclusion lead at Deloitte, says.

“By not incentivising fathers to take time off at a very early stage in a child’s life, Ireland doesn’t yet have the same societal norm of fathers being as responsible as mothers for the domestic sphere.

“At Deloitte, we have found that having a significant number of positive female role models in leadership positions is effective in encouraging and supporting other women.

“However, in general, many working women in Ireland today did not grow up with personal role models of mothers who balanced home and work – as this changes over time, this should begin to even the playing field somewhat,” McCarthy says.

Changing needs

Deloitte has a number of policies to support its approach to being a family-friendly workplace, which it regularly reviews as employees’ needs change. “We offer people returning from maternity/adoptive leave the option of a phased return over several months and attending a Returners programme with a maternity coach. We also offer a variety of reduced hours and flexible working contracts for those who wish to regularly work part-time or those who wish to have additional time off during school holidays. We have seen great uptake at Deloitte of paternity leave and parental leave, which our people can avail of in a very flexible way,” McCarthy says.

So what more can be done to support families in the workplace?

“Organisations need to understand, on a continuous basis, the diversity of their people. Setting up a regular forum to listen to what employees need and being agile when it comes to implementing changes is both incredibly valuable for the employee and also for the organisation,” she says.

The figures

According to the CIPD 2018 HR practices in Ireland survey, the majority of organisations surveyed offered opportunities for part-time working (81 per cent), flexible working (74 per cent) and remote working (60 per cent). Four in five companies reported an increase in the take-up rate for each of these. However, when they looked at how actively companies engaged in these, the survey found that, in practice, organisations were more likely to provide a limited approach to flexible customised schedules (47 per cent) and to where work gets done (54 per cent).

“While attractive to many employee groups, it is acknowledged that providing flexible working is an important practice to retain parents, especially mothers, in the workplace. Visibly promoting women who are working part-time or taking parental leave gives a strong message that the employer wants to retain and develop this group. It is also one of the foundations for tackling the low number of women in senior roles and the gender pay gap,” Mary Connaughton, director of CIPD, says.

The EU has been exploring the work-life balance challenges faced by working parents and carers. Its figures (based on 2010 statistics) show that more employees in Finland than elsewhere in the EU can access flexible working practices (more than 50 per cent), followed by Sweden (more than 40 per cent). In Germany, Denmark and Austria, between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of employees can access flexible work, while in Ireland, Italy and France, from 30 per cent to 35 per cent of employees can access flexible working.

“The current EU approach to increase these figures is not to bring in further regulations but to promote better use and enforcement of maternity, paternity, parental and carers’ leave, and the right to request flexible working arrangements,” Connaughton says.

“Many organisations have flexible family-friendly policies in place, but it is only where these are strongly and visibly supported by managers and leaders that they are a real tool to support employees to work more flexibly,” she adds.