We asked Karen Taylor, founder of start-up Parent Cloud, to give us her thoughts on what companies need to do to embed flexible working practices, particularly for new parents who are returning to work. As Karen explains, it starts with companies making a clear commitment to flexible working.
In July this year, Helen Whately MP introduced a bill in Parliament to make flexible working the default rather than the exception for companies in the UK. This was a huge step in raising awareness and hopefully marks a major shift in how employers approach flexible working.
In a recent study, 98% of employers stated that their employees expect more flexible working hours and, despite only 36% of those employers currently meeting that need, offering flexible working practices was high on their list of priorities so there’s hope that flexible working will soon become the new norm.
While flexible working helps give parents more time with their families, surprisingly enough it has no positive impact on their mental wellbeing. Working parents are 40% more stressed than others in your workforce and this doesn’t improve when you begin offering flexible working. Also, those working flexibly still struggle to progress in their careers with part-time workers being 50% less likely to be promoted.
To maintain employee engagement, mental wellbeing and increase gender diversity, Employers need to embrace flexible working, but they also need to go a step further. Working flexibly can be hard. Employers need to give flexible workers all the tools they need in order to thrive.
What more should employers be doing?
The first step is to make it easy for employees to request flexible working. At the moment, too often the onus is on the employee to make the request and redesign their role to work with their new hours. Having to make a case for flexible working puts mothers returning to work at a disadvantage.
Mothers approaching the end of their maternity leave often say how nervous they are about discussing returning to work on a ‘part-time’ basis. They believe it will affect how they are viewed and options for progression.
Therefore, I think more employers need to take the initiative and ask the question – ‘would working flexibly be something you’d like to discuss?’ and ‘how can we make returning to work easier for you?’
That said, flexible working policies shouldn’t just be about making it easier for those returning from maternity leave. Companies need to make sure that all existing and prospective employees feel comfortable making a flexible working request. Placing flexible working statements on job descriptions and creating pages on your corporate intranet to highlight your flexible working policies puts everyone on an equal footing and can make all the difference.
Ensuring part-time roles really are part-time
Employers often ask the question; how can you make your position work part-time? This isn’t a fair question, and it leads to a potentially unfair outcome. The role then doesn’t change, and the employee finds themselves under an increased amount of pressure: they need to get the same amount of work done, but in fewer hours.
Instead, employers would be better off looking at the job description and seeing whether some of the duties can be reduced or reallocated, thereby helping the individual to prioritise. The next step would be to set achievable and realistic objectives that can be met within the new timeframe. For example, if someone is working half of a week, then regular weekly meetings should shift to fortnightly meetings. Every hour spent by someone part-time can equate to two hours for a full-time employee, so make sure to strip things away from their calendar.
Career coaching and support
There’s an art to working successfully part-time, and it’s often something that takes employees time to get used to. The transition can take its toll, both on employee engagement and on their mental wellbeing. By offering access to coaching and support, enabling employees to think about how to structure their home and working week, and giving them techniques to prioritise and get comfortable with pushing back, employers can significantly improve the morale of someone returning to work.
If employers are going to improve their gender diversity, particularly at a senior level, giving flexible working employees access to career coaching will make a huge difference. Making career progression feel achievable is key.
Leading from the top
Are the senior managers and leaders within your business working flexibly themselves? Because if they aren’t, your employees may not be convinced that they can make career progress while working part-time.
Employers need to be creating senior roles that can work on a flexible basis. Creating job shares at a senior level demonstrate that flexibility is something that you value and will not be considered an impediment to success.
The Octopus approach
As a former Octopus employee, I’m well aware of the innovative approach the company takes to flexible working. It has a flexible working policy that is embraced by people across the business, from the CEO down. Octopus employees are encouraged to have open, honest discussions with their line managers, to talk frankly about their needs and concerns, and together to come up with flexible ways of working (working from home, phased hours, job-sharing, etc.) that suits both parties. And I’m delighted that my start-up business Parent Cloud, is helping Octopus to go further.
About Parent Cloud
Parent Cloud is a group of talented coaches and advisers offering on-demand, remote coaching and support to help families to thrive; covering a variety of parental issues including: birth, breastfeeding, sleep training, postnatal depression, returning to work and career coaching. Our goal is simple; to improve mental health and professional prospects for all parents, everywhere.
Octopus and Parent Cloud are working on a programme which will introduce specific measures aimed at helping to build a stronger bond with parents within the Octopus workforce, enabling them to benefit from the added confidence, mental wellbeing and focus that dedicated and personal coaching and advice can provide.
More companies like Octopus are recognising that offering flexible working practices not only increases employee engagement, but also has a positive impact on employee mental wellbeing and encouraging gender diversity in the workplace. But the real difference comes from companies offering genuine support and encouragement to individuals who want to work and build a rewarding career, and need their employer to take the time to listen.
Find out more at parent-cloud.com