By Zoe Sinclair, Managing Director of Employees Matter
The introduction of shared parental leave last month (April 2015) is another signal of the move to more family-friendly, 'people-shaped' working. Employers are moving with the times, keen to reflect the changing gender roles at home and their understanding of the messy interactions between home and work lives. Or are they?
The reality is more complicated. In the same way that legislation on the right to ask for flexible working didn't necessarily lead to floods of flex-happy requests, shared parental leave is going to raise difficult questions for people about commitment and cover.
Embracing shared parental leave, becoming more family-friendly, is a positive move. Worried bosses should take heart from the model we're following in Scandinavia. Sweden has offered shared leave for more than 30 years, without problems for business or signs of grumbling discontent. There are substantial benefits in terms of building engagement with staff, in demonstrating how work and family life can be in harmony. It's particularly important for women. The evidence is there in Scandinavia, where the culture of shared leave has been fundamental to more gender equality in the workplace - which is good for everyone. A study by consultancy McKinsey & Co. in 2014 showed that those firms where leadership roles were most balanced between men and women were also more likely to have above national average financial returns. The same was found at Sodexo which looked at profits from its units - again, the picture was better when women had a more prominent role alongside men.
So it's important to see the positive sides of shared parental leave and what it'll mean for your organisation over time in helping to develop a more 'family-friendly' culture in general.
1. Don't worry about a rush.
There's a huge difference between wanting to share leave and being able to do it financially. Technically for the first 39 weeks employees are only entitled to statutory pay - but you might want to think about offering enhanced pay, which is going to become a more important differentiator between employers, and a good way to demonstrate commitment on your side. In a survey of FTSE 100 employees by Linklaters, 63% said they'd be interested in taking the shared option (and there was no real difference in levels of interest between men and women), but it all depended on what their organisation was going to offer in terms of something more than just statutory pay. With this in mind, the Government are probably right in saying take-up will start at around 2-6%, just because of the financial issue.
2. Don't be caught up in stereotypes.
Men aren't any less cut out for 'nurturing'. It's a myth than men are any less capable. It's only fairly recently in our history that men in their working roles were separated off from family life, doing their own thing at the office. It's just an issue of stereotypes which has undermined men's feeling of confidence over time - and if anything, men can be better at the kind of task-focused roles involved in babycare. It'll take time for shared leave to become the norm, but with the growth in numbers of women becoming the main earner (it's said to be around 40% in the US) the trend is only going to be upwards.
3. Think in terms of how shared leave will support staff engagement.
That's particularly true for your female staff and the opportunity this presents for growing their career through maternity and responsibilities as a mum. They don't have to take huge chunks of time off anymore, which makes such a difference in terms of consistency and relationship with the workplace. No more need to take a 'break' or being detached from their career if they don't want to.
4. How can you support them better?
Some organisations already offer specific support and are looking to adapt what they do in response to the arrival of shared parental leave. For example, firms like Goldman Sachs run 'Keeping in Touch' days for women on maternity leave, which provides an easy-going way for new mums to still feel part of what's happening and make it easier to have a smooth return. They also offer workshops for working parents on the practicalities, like managing time between work and home demands. For when children are getting older, some employers run Bring Your Children to Work Days (at firms such as Societe Generale, Pinsent Masons and Northern Trust) to help children better understand their parents' working lives.
5. Encourage people to switch off from work on their leave.
It's important that new parents, women and men, take genuine time out. They shouldn't feel under any pressure to keep in touch by email, to be left with any kind of sense that it would be 'better' for their career, for their relationships, just to stay in touch now and again. Mobile devices have blurred home and work lives to an extent that it's much harder for people to turn off the updates. You'll also need to be sympathetic when returning employees feel guilty. We talk to mums all the time about how they feel terrible about leaving their baby in nursery after a year of being at home. If the feeling is that strong, then going back to work - at least full-time - is probably the wrong move.