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Future of Work

by Jennifer Liston Smith, Head of Thought Leadership, Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions

You probably noticed the news headlines in September about Alice Thompson who was awarded nearly £185K in compensation? Her well-thought-out request for flexibility was turned down without consideration on her return from maternity leave. The payout was based on indirect sex discrimination, since childcare responsibilities are seen as still resting disproportionately with mothers and her flexible working request was to enable childcare pickups. The story made headlines from Breakfast TV  to the HR media to LadBible as well as around the world. The coverage was serious and sympathetic, shining a spotlight on parental leave returners as a talent population not to be ignored.

A better future and a more promising present

In her interview on ITV’s This Morning, Alice Thompson spoke eloquently and persuasively about challenging her former employer in order to prevent her young daughter experiencing the same obstacles in 20 or 30 years’ time.

Bright Horizons’ just-published Parental Leave Benchmark tells a more encouraging story about employers’ attitudes to new parents at work. The survey, which is carried out every couple of years, tracks parental leave enhancements and other supports for new working parents. The data this time, from around 700 employers, show:

  • Four out of five employers (79%) now offer enhanced maternity pay, vs 57% in 2017
  • Two-thirds (67%) now enhance paternity/partner leave pay, against 44% in 2017
  • Enhanced shared parental leave pay still lags but has reached 48% vs 25% in 2017
  • 26 weeks’ full pay is now the most frequent enhancement in knowledge worker sectors, while several employers offer 39+ weeks
  • More 18- and 16-week enhancements vs the previous norm of 12/13 weeks.
  • 6-week enhancements are still popular in some sectors (such as hospitality) or tiered packages spread over time.

It’s about more than pay

However, leading provisions now go some way beyond generous periods of paid leave. The Parental Leave Benchmark shows:

  • Provision of online or app-based coaching / advice for the new parent has increased by 200%
  • Online or app-based coaching for managers has increased by 100% since the last benchmark in 2019.
  • Group coaching programmes have risen by 333%
  • Provision of onsite childcare support has grown 100%.

Best practice training for managers includes how to respond constructively to flexible working requests, the missed opportunity in Alice Thompson’s case.

So many aspects of the parent transition get better when there is open communication. Without guidance, too many mangers still shy away from conversations, unsure of what to say. Instead, the Benchmark shows more employers equipping managers to consider the business case for every flexible working request, looking at the role’s deliverables with the job holder. Increased specialist coaching for the individual returner also supports a better-prepared dialogue.

Empowering new parents in the hybrid world

Now, more than ever, employers are acutely aware of the importance of retaining talented and knowledgeable people. There is much evidence of the ‘work-life rethink’ prompted both by the pandemic and by new styles of working, for employees at all life stages.

The need to re-engage applies particularly to the new working parent, resuming their professional role following parental leave. As hybrid workers everywhere enthusiastically discuss how it feels to ‘come back in’, we might stop and ask ourselves: how does ‘back to work’ feel to those whose last 6-12 months have been spent bonding and busy with a new addition to their family, while the world shifted on its axis?

Bright Horizons’ own coaching has long included a focus on the new parent staying ‘visible’ at work in career progression terms. That can be harder to navigate within the new norms, so it is not surprising to see the rise in wider provision of coaching and mentoring programmes for returning parents. An experienced sounding board can make a difference in both challenging the individual (or manager’s) habits or expectations and providing a supportive, confidential space to think, and breathe.

Closing the gender gap

Another notable point from the Parental Leave Benchmark is that there is a rise in provision of enhanced paternity or partner leave pay beyond 2 weeks’:

  • Over a fifth (21%) of employers in our nearly 700 sample now offer more than 2 weeks’ enhanced pay
  • Only 9% offered more than 2 weeks’ enhancement in 2019.

However, in order to truly encourage shared parenting and to remove gender biases from the potential career impact of taking parental leave, paternity / partner packages would need to be a great deal higher, or shared parental leave would need to be better supported.

Some forward-thinking organisations are equalising pay across all types of leave, and it is these employers who will in turn have the better story to tell in their Gender Pay Gap narrative and action plan.

Compare your offering with the marketplace

You can get hold of a copy of the Parental Leave Benchmark here. It provides overview statistics and commentary and a detailed, anonymous league table showing granular policy provisions with sector and size of employer. The report also has recommendations on making the business case for enhanced provision and gaining senior buy-in.

When surveyed about the key drivers for enhanced policies around new parent leave, the top 3 drivers for the 700 participating employers were:

  • ‘Staying competitive in the battle to attract and retain talent’ (66%);
  • ‘Being inclusive of and supporting working fathers’ (58%)
  • ‘Retaining/ supporting our younger generation workforce as they reach the parenting life stage’ (56%).

This seems to reflect a genuine understanding that becoming a parent is a key ‘moment that matters’ in the employee experience. And it’s a matter of talent, rather than only the right thing to do.

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