By Dana Worth 23 October 2018

New parents represent a sizeable chunk of the human resources of many companies. Making their return to work easier will pay good returns in high retention and productivity rates.

Research by Circle In, a consultancy that works with companies to help employees plan parental leave, estimates that almost two-thirds of all returnees think companies could do better when it comes to managing both the parental leave and return process.

“Sixty-two per cent of the 538 respondents to our survey didn’t feel adequately supported returning to work from parental leave,” says Kate Pollard, a director of Circle In.

“There is a huge opportunity for companies to do more to help their employees better plan their leave.”

In 2016-17, 51.9 per cent of employers offered non-leave based measures to support employees with caring responsibilities, according to the federal government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA). 

The 48 per cent without these measures are running a significant reputational risk, not to mention the possibility of losing precious human resources. 

Government policy has started to address one part of the problem.

Remind them to stay in touch

By law, says Pollard, all employees on parental leave are entitled to 10 paid optional “keeping in touch” days, to be taken after the initial paid parental leave period expires. These days typically involve work-related meetings and team strategy or planning days. They must be approved as work-related by the employee’s manager.

But not many people know about the entitlement, says Pollard.

She encourages both employees and employers to understand the options for keeping in touch, and to discuss them before the employee takes leave.

“To what extent do employees want contact while they’re away? Do they want a total disconnect? Also, we think employees need to be able to change their preferences half-way through.

“It’s up to both the employer and the employee to ensure they have this conversation,” Pollard stresses.

 

“If there is equality at home, men will start looking at flexible work from a different perspective. Creating the right culture is important.” Kate Pollard, Circle In

Three pillars of support

Brooke Shaw, senior manager of people and culture at Dexus, says the company has identified three main challenges for working parents:

  1. Access to childcare
  2. Rebuilding confidence in themselves and in their careers
  3. Flexibility 

Dexus has trialled different ways to address these points.

One program, Childspace, makes it easier for parents to find childcare close to Dexus workplaces. Dexus offers this benefit to its customers as well.

Another, a digital workflow program called Enboarder, ensures that all employees know what their parental leave entitlements are and provides support as they prepare for, undertake and return from leave.

“The moment an employee formally notifies the business of their parental leave, they are added to the platform,” says Shaw. “That allows us to keep communications open via email or text. This complements the conversations they are having with their manager.

“Enboarder sends reminders to the employee such as – ‘twelve weeks to go, have you discussed arrangements with your manager?’. Also, through Enboarder we remind the manager of employee entitlements and tools to ensure they keep in touch with the employee while on leave. We also send reminders through Enboarder while they are away – eight weeks before a parent returns, we might ask ‘Would you like any assistance planning for your return?’.”

To rebuild employee confidence on their return, Dexus provides all primary parental leavers with access to one on one coaching and tools from an organisation called Parents At Work, a tailored program supporting parents in the workplace.

“We also have a parents’ network. We’ve divided it into two groups – Dexus dads and Dexus mums. We’ve asked extensively whether it’s good to separate the groups.

“The feedback from our people has been overwhelming that separate groups are a good idea. But sometimes we merge the groups for conversations or events to sort through common challenges.”

Dexus offers primary carer’s paid leave to both men and women – but they have to take it at a different time to their partner.

Encouraging the dads to take leave

One statistic in which the company takes particular pride is that, of all the individuals who are taking primary carer’s leave, 20 per cent are currently men. That compares to zero in 2016, says Shaw.

The national comparable average in 2016-17 was 4.7 per cent, according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. But that’s explained by the fact that most workplaces do not allow both parents to take paid primary carer’s leave. 

Furthermore, only 39.3 per cent of employers offered paid parental leave for secondary carers, according to WGEA, and the average length offered was 7.3 days.

For Circle In’s Pollard, this last statistic is particularly disappointing. It’s crucial for men to be offered – and to take – carer’s leave, she believes.

“If there is equality at home, men will start looking at flexible work from a different perspective. Creating the right culture is important.”

Flexibility – the ultimate challenge

For many companies, allowing true flexibility of work preferences is probably the most challenging part of a good return to work strategy.

Dexus makes it mandatory for section leaders to attend specialist training on organising workflows around flexible hours. It also provides plenty of support to managers who are struggling with the company’s commitment to flexibility for all its employees (not just those returning from parental leave).

But, says Shaw: “We actually think there’s no choice. In a market with a chronic skills shortage, people wanting flexible work are a resource that we would be foolish to neglect.”

Can you rely on anything in this new world of total flexibility?

“What you can rely on,” says Shaw, “is that you’re going to keep needing to flex your flexibility approach.”

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