It can be hard trying to juggle work and kids, with some parents having to settle for second-rate jobs in order to look after their family but keep the pennies rolling in. Louise Druce asks if firms are doing enough to be more childcare friendly.
The kids may be back at school but balancing childcare responsibilities with work can still be a headache. Some bosses aren’t helping tip the scales in favour of parents either by failing to lend enough support.
It all boils down to the company. While many large firms have got a good handle on offering family-friendly policies, others are less willing to invest time and money in schemes they feel may not offer them a decent return on investment.
Often it comes down to misunderstandings about the benefits supported childcare schemes can offer and what exactly is out there. Then, of course, there is the company demographic and culture to consider.
“The first question an employer needs to ask itself is ‘are you prepared to do everything necessary to support and engage your working parents?’,” says Ben Black, director of corporate childcare services provider The Family Care company. “Anything you do obviously comes with a cost. And there is the problem – the cost is easy to see, whereas the benefits are never as immediately tangible, especially to the accountants.”
Charles Cotton, CIPD adviser for reward
Flexible working in particular has been causing some controversy in the workplace. Employees have the right to request flexible working and employers have a duty to consider it, but while some firms see it as a minor sacrifice for retaining key talent, others are more distrustful or resentful of having to accommodate people unable to work the nine to five.
A recent survey by WorkingMums.co.uk revealed that 90 per cent of mothers felt it was difficult to find the flexibility they needed in a job, while 83 per cent found is was difficult to find flexible working that suited their skills. Furthermore, over two-thirds said they wanted to work but didn’t see why they should settle for jobs that failed to meet their level of experience in order to get the flexibility they wanted.
“One of the barriers to flexible working is still the attitude of line managers. It’s still seen as a touchy-feely, fluffy type of initiative, rather than aligned to the needs of the business and employees,” says Charles Cotton, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s adviser for reward.
Where it might work for the company, he highlights, is through the opportunity to extend office opening hours if there are some parents who would prefer to come in earlier and leave earlier, or if they would prefer to start and finish later.
“If you spend money training a woman and there are concerns she might leave the labour market to look after the kids, offering flexible working arrangements may suit her and the organisation because working out of the office means the company doesn’t lose skills, attitudes and corporate knowledge,” Cotton adds.
Two-way cost savings
Flexible working is just one option. On-site nurseries, childcare provision, back-up and emergency healthcare, holiday play schemes and parental help lines have all found their way into company policies.
Claire Smyth, a marketing manager at Microsoft, was sent for a free company-backed health assessment as soon as she found out she was expecting and was introduced to the company’s ‘Bump Club’ for other pregnant women. Her child is now in the on-campus nursery, which means she can be there in seconds if there is a problem and can spend more time with her than she would otherwise.
“Having a baby is an exciting time but it also brings practical concerns such as returning to work, maintaining your career and having the advice and support you need,” says Smyth. “It really gave me confidence that the company cared and supported my plans.”
Maternity rights have received the most attention in the workplace, due to legislation surrounding the issue. But childcare support is increasingly becoming focused on dads and grandparents, as well as parents with older children. It could be why the government-backed childcare voucher scheme now seems to be proving the most popular in the workplace – that and the fact employers are exempt from tax and NI contributions on the vouchers, making them cost-effective.
The vouchers are available to all employees and can be used at their discretion, be it for a nursery, nanny, crèche or after-school club. In terms of savings, if an employer takes the maximum £243 per month allowance for a year, for example, they save 12.8 per cent in NI, equating to £370 a year per employee.
From the other side of the fence, Tom Stevenson, HR manager, Total Compensation UK & ROI at Kellogg’s, reports an equal share of mums and dads at his firm are making cost savings of nearly £2,000 in some cases since it implemented the Early Years Vouchers’ scheme.
Lynne Keeble, Accor Services’ childcare voucher product manager, does point out one complication from a parent’s point of view: understanding the registration and approval process for childcare providers, as proposed changes in the law could soon mean some have their status changed. “This can be confusing for parents if they are using vouchers for a nanny or childminder and all of a sudden they aren’t approved any more,” she adds. “There is work to be done to help parents understand what qualifying childcare means.”
However, research from one of Accor’s clients, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, showed that the 40 per cent return rate for workers on maternity leave in 2000 jumped to 89 per cent in 2005 when vouchers and other child-friendly policies were introduced into the company. A separate study by the National Centre for Social Research also identified a positive effect on absenteeism, especially in cases where childcare breaks down.
“On some of those occasions it will be right to take time off work and often it’s possible to work from home,” explains Black. “But if it isn’t, the old family and friends networks are not what they used to be. It’s also true that working mothers do not like admitting the reason they are not in work is because they could not get their childcare sorted.”
It takes two
Ben Black, director, The Family Care company
Whichever childcare support schemes are chosen, he believes successful implementation is down to how often they are used and recommended. “Parents talk to each other,” he points out.
A two-way focus on childcare support is also needed, says Keeble. Actively promoting schemes through the company intranet, newsletter or giving employees access to further information about childcare can help employers be seen as more family-friendly, something she has first-hand experience of.
“I’m expecting in January and it makes you look at companies in a completely different way – who you would like to work for, who is going to be more flexible about your hours, who is going to keep in touch with you when you’re off work, what the maternity package is like,” she says.
“More importantly, it’s about attitude – are they really family-friendly? Employees put more onus on this than employers might consider. It’s not all about the money and benefits.”