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How employers can create an inclusive workplace 

Jane van Zyl, Working Families

Balancing work and family life is something parents often find incredibly challenging. At Working Families, we often hear about the obstacles parents face in accessing policies, support and benefits that should be made available to them. A lack of information about the resources many employers offer to people as they become parents or caregivers is often the cause of these issues, along with the fear of being stigmatised for taking advantage of family-friendly policies.

Not knowing about or being able to access flexible working arrangements has potential impacts on parents’ wellbeing, which has implications for their performance at work. This begs the question of what can employers do to embed a culture that prioritises the wellbeing of its employees and recognises the responsibilities they have outside of the workplace in order to retain loyal, skilled people and boost productivity?

The Working Families Benchmark Report 2023 explored best practice in family-friendly and flexible working amongst our employee members. The vast majority of members reported talking about flexible working with employees taking maternity leave, and just over half do the same for people taking paternity leave. For many, this is combined with offering proactive support for employees transitioning to being parents or carers such as toolkits and guides, counselling, coaching, mentoring, buddying, and finally parents and carers networks where staff can access peer support. These types of measures help to create an open culture amongst managers and their teams, building positivity around flexible working and the understanding that parents and carers will probably require flexibility, given their caring responsibilities. It also helps an environment in which employees feel comfortable advocating for their needs without fear of judgment or reprisal.

Crucially, embedding a culture which supports people to manage their responsibilities within and outside the workplace requires actions across all parts of a business. For example, encouraging discussions about flexible working arrangements at all levels of the organisation works well, which can be done through webinars, internal messages or ‘parenting out loud’ from senior leaders (particularly dads who are less likely to be vocal about their caring responsibilities!), training for line managers on how to effectively support staff returning from family leave, and by highlighting the experiences of employees who successfully balance work and family responsibilities. Beyond this, it is vital that people are made aware of the flexible working, parental leave, and other family-friendly initiatives from the time they join a company and not just at the point when they themselves or someone they manage learns they are going to become a parent or carer. This includes flagging when onboarding and hiring new staff, through regular ad hoc messaging, utilising role models, enlisting flexible working champions to be ‘inhouse influencers’.

Being a family-friendly employer begins, however, before people even join an organisation. It involves truly understanding job design and defining job descriptions with clarity so that flexible options can be identified early on. This could include hybrid working or flexible hours but also job-sharing, term-time working or compressed hours, depending on the demands of the role. Moreover, roles that have flexible options – which all can be, if you get the job design right – should be advertised as such. This enables employers to attract a more diverse pool of candidates and tap into talent that might otherwise be inaccessible. In 2019, the global insurance company Zurich did just that. To address issues blocking women’s career programmes, they became the first company in the UK to advertise all vacancies with the option of part-time, full-time, job share or flexible working. Coupled with the use of gender-neutral language in every job advertisement, this led to a 16% rise in women applying for jobs. By 2022, five times more female part time workers were hired compared to 2019 when the initiative started.

Being a parent or carer shouldn’t be a barrier to work or progression, and the practices of Working Families employer members demonstrate that it is possible to operate a successful business whilst promoting an inclusive, flexible working culture. By implementing some of these strategies, employers can create a workplace where parents and caregivers feel supported, valued, and empowered.