• Under the Fair Work Act, employees who’ve been with their company for at least 12 months are entitled to 12 months unpaid parental leave. (AAP)Source: AAP
Work’s important, but so is family. So how do working parents successfully combine both, and which companies are helping Australians do it better?
Sue White

17 Mar 2016 - 2:02 PM  UPDATED 17 Mar 2016 - 2:31 PM

Monday morning may bring grumbles for many employees, but for the working parent the start of the working week heralds a juggling act.  For most, childcare, school holidays and special events are in continual competition with the desire – or necessity – to successfully kick a few career goals at work before Friday rolls around.

There’s some good news. If you’re a working parent, the law is on your side: at least, in theory. A swag of laws make it illegal for Australian employers to treat working parents any differently, but two main laws apply.  Anti discrimination laws at federal, state and territory level prevent employee discrimination due to pregnancy, potential pregnancy, breastfeeding and family responsibilities, while the Fair Work Act offers the right to request flexible work arrangements and provides protections like the right to take unpaid parental leave.

But according Rhonda Brighton-Hall, chair of FlexCareers and board director of the Australian Human Resources Institute, the right legislation is just the starting point.

“The legislation is pretty good…and it has reasonable teeth to it in terms of solving problems. The problem is that people aren’t aware of it, and to take your employment relationship into a legal stance makes the relationship really tough. It’s hard to get back on track,” she says.

To ensure things don’t get to that stage, large companies are now bringing in experts to help tackle the work/parenting mix. Founder and CEO of How Do You Do It, Virginia Herlihy says their programs initially worked only with employees (both men and women), but after feedback that managers were “inconsistent” in their support of flexible work the company added tailored programs for that group too. “Some managers are brilliant and understand the business case and the benefits; some are just worried about how hard it’s going to be for them,” Herlihy says.

The Telstra story
Telstra’s approach to flexible work means it’s often lauded as an Australian company making significant ground on behalf of working parents. Since the introduction of its ‘All Roles Flex’ policy, which makes flexibility the default position for all jobs, satisfaction from staff with caring responsibilities about the flexibility they are able to access at work has risen to 88 per cent.

Parents are supported in other ways too. There’s a comprehensive program assisting those preparing for and returning from extended leave. Plus, a ‘staying connected’ program goes above the government’s Keeping In Touch days, and allows workers to opt in to regular updates about what’s happening at work while on leave.
“It creates a softer landing for people returning to work,” explains Telstra’s General Manager, Diversity & Inclusion, Troy Roderick.

Longer term, All Roles Flex means it’s easier for parents to deal with routine commitments like day care and school drop offs, as well as special occasions like swimming carnivals. 

But the most telling shift may be a compelling statistic from 2014-2015. This showed a 300 per cent increase in Telstra’s managers who were new dads taking primary parental leave. Granted, the baseline was tiny: the shift went from 0.8% to 2.4%. Still, Roderick believes it speaks loudly, especially since the data shows men in general are very reluctant to take up flexible work options.

“To us that says there’s something changing in our organisation about the expectation on male leaders, and the openness that their leaders and their teams have [about] them taking a more active role in parenting,” says Roderick.

The most telling shift may be a compelling statistic from 2014-2015. This showed a 300 per cent increase in Telstra’s managers who were new dads taking primary parental leave.

It’s certainly been the case for Reid Johnson.  At work, the Telstra Director of Customer Service is a manager of nine direct reports (and a broader team of 200). At home, he has four kids and a wife of 22 years. Twelve months ago, he took up Telstra’s flexible work arrangements and now works a 4.5 day week over four days.  Work is important to Johnson, but so is family. “For me, if you love something, you need to spend the right amount of time with it,” he says.

Every Friday, Johnson uses his day at home to support his family, and his own wellbeing. He walks his youngest son to school, gives his daughter driving lessons, and squeezes in the occasional 10am Gold Class movie with his wife. Phone calls and emails from work are off limits, and by Saturday, he feels different.
“I wake up and say to my family, “let’s go”. A year ago I’d almost resent everyone coming at me with stuff,” Johnson says.

While his family noticed the difference straight away (his wife says he’s happier), the move is also respected by at work, where Johnson says he’s now more efficient, thanks to a few streamlined work practices. It’s even led to opportunities for others. “I have a delegate in my role on Fridays…I’m onto my third as the first two got noticed and promoted because they were more visible, he says.

Johnson strongly believes more men should embrace part-time or flexible work, in the way women seem to. “I think women are better at saying, ‘family is important’ and carving out time for that,” he says. 

As for his next move up the ladder, flexibility is now a non-negotiable for Johnson, although at Telstra, that suits the company just fine. “I’m a complete convert and can’t imagine going back,” he says.


Entitlements during pregnancy and parental leave

Under the Fair Work Act, employees who’ve been with their company for at least 12 months are entitled to 12 months unpaid parental leave. It doesn’t have to be the mother: a spouse is also entitled.  Need more leave? The law entitles requests for an additional 12 months unpaid parental leave, although businesses can refuse this if they provide reasonable business grounds in writing. The Fair Work Act also allows employees to work up to ten (paid) “Keeping in touch” days during their unpaid parental leave, to provide a smoother return to work period.


Returning to work as a parent: what the law says

The Fair Work Act guarantees employees returning from unpaid parental leave to their pre-parental leave job. If that job no longer exists, they’re entitled to another job which is close in status and pay to the original position. (We know, room to manoeuvre). Those who’ve worked somewhere for at least a year, and are looking after school aged children (or younger) can request flexible working arrangements. This request must be in writing, and must be responded to in 21 days.

What’s more challenging for most is how ‘flexible work’ looks. It could be starting or finishing at different times to colleagues, working remotely sometimes, or working reduced hours. Often, it’s worth offering to trial a new arrangement to prove it’s workable.

According to Prue Gilbert, the founder of Grace Papers, a digital program supporting working parents, employees should make sure they don’t let their value get lost in all the talk about logistics. “Your professional vision should be included in every career conversation, and every pregnancy/parental leave/flexibility conversation,” she advises.



Workplaces taking flexibility for parents seriously

Rhonda Brighton-Hall says she hasn’t yet seen a company which has got it right for everybody. “But I’ve seen some who have got it more right than others,” she says.  We agree. Aside from Telstra, here are a few companies aiming to make lives easier for working parents in Australia.

At ANZ, flexible work is on the rise across the board, with 87 per cent of Australian employees taking it up in 2015 (versus 37 per cent the previous year). The move is now supported by policy: in March 2015 ANZ announced that all roles are up for consideration to become flexible for any reason. Staff on parental leave can keep their laptop if they choose, and there’s a $4000 childcare allowance paid to primary carers when they return to work to help ease that transition.

Corrs Chambers Westgarth
This national law firm has spent a number of years refining its flexibility offerings, including for working parents. Mainstreaming Flexibility aims to take the stigma out of flexible work for all employees, while a working mother’s program run by an external facilitator supports small cohorts of employees balancing work and parental responsibilities. On offer? Coping tactics, tips and the chance for working mothers to build internal and external support networks.

Ogilvy Public Relations
Group Managing Director of Ogilvy Public Relations, Susan Redden Makatoa is a mum of four children (a fifth is on the way). She says the company’s approach to working parents attracted her to the organisation, and moreover, it works. “As a manager, being flexible really pays off. I’ve never once had someone take advantage: quite the opposite,” she says.

Some of Ogilvy’s practices include: parents being encouraged to start work later (or finish earlier) on children’s birthdays (all staff get their own birthday off work). A health and wellness package including family discounts at a local dentist, and parental leave applies to the main caregiver regardless of gender. The company’s broader ‘Agile Working’ policy is utilised by parents: one dad works one day a week from home caring for his toddler, another starts at 10am daily to do the school drop off and avoid peak hour, and plenty of mums work 8am to 3pm or part time.

Fortress Learning
The Registered Training Organisation has just 12 staff, but high levels of flexibility are on offer for all. Many parents work the school hours shift, which includes an official start time of 9.30 in case parents need to speak to a teacher or walk the kids into school.  School holidays take flexibility to another level. “We let staff work out among themselves how and when to get everything done,” says manager, Dr Bryan West.

In term time, sick kids are welcomed in the office. “We have Lego and a mattress for them,” says West.

And when things are going well? “If a kid is getting an award at school, we expect our staff to be there to watch,” he says.

At online wine retailer Vinomofo, headquartered in Melbourne, policies acknowledge the intrinsic link between the professional and personal.  “If you are happy at home, you are happier at work (and vice versa),” says Vinomofo joint CEO and cofounder, Justin Dry.

Parents-to-be are encouraged to take part in milestones before and after the baby’s arrival, with expecting dads welcome to attend pre-baby appointments during office hours, and flexible roles up for discussion for all.

New World Whisky
Another player in the liquor industry, New World Whisky was founded by a father of three. Flexible hours are commonplace for parents of both genders; all board members have children and are committed to help retain staff through personal milestones like parenting; and family members can be brought along on business trips where appropriate (they pay for their own flights, and families can use options like Airbnb to find family-friendly accommodation for the same price as a hotel room that would cost the company).


Where to go for help:

www.supportingworkingparents.gov.au  This new Federal Government initiative from the Australian Human Rights Commission provides extensive free resources for those on both sides of the fence ‘working parents’ fence.

For employees, there’s a guide discussing rights around pregnancy, parental leave and return to work, as well information on relevant laws and how to make a complaint if you are being discriminated against. 

For employers, the site offers a free toolkit to promote understanding of the laws relating to pregnant employees, those on parental leave and working parents.

Grace Papers:
This six-step digital program, developed by a former lawyer, breaks the process of moving from pregnancy to maternity leave and back to work into manageable chunks. A “Just for Dads” program is coming soon. Employers can also join Grace Papers so that all employees have access to its online programs: Dulux, Ernst & Young, NAB and Kimberly Clark are just some examples of Australian companies who have already signed up.

How Do You Do It:
Tailored working parents’ programs for companies in both Australia and the UK. Clients include, AGL, Herbert Smith Freehills, TAL (insurance) and King & Wood Mallesons. Programs target both men and women, as well as managers.

Stay-at-home grandparenting: swapping retirement for rock-a-bye baby
The role grandparents play within a family unit has changed, with them becoming the most popular type of informal childcare in the country. It's work that goes unpaid but grandparents are reaping the benefits of quality time with their grandkids.


Seeking better conditions? Here’s how to tackle it.

The founder of online program Grace Papers, Prue Gilbert, has a number of tips for women looking for a smooth transition into maternity leave and back to work.

Tip 1: Don’t doubt the data.
“One in two women experience pregnancy related discrimination either while pregnant, while on maternity leave, or upon their return to work. But most women don't believe it can or will happen to them.”

Tip 2: Know thy stakeholder – both internal and external.
“Take some time to contemplate their potential biases, and how you might respond. That will give you a chance to address it in the moment, and reduce the risk of it manifesting as discrimination.”

Tip 3. Plan.
Gilbert says both women and men transitioning into parenting should take the time to develop a professional vision – and then, communicate it.
“It's like your career navigation system that keeps you focused on where your career is heading, even if the world around you is changing rapidly.”

Tip 4: Talk to your partner about expectations.
“What do you believe? Do you believe that fathers can do everything mothers can? Do you believe that a father’s primary responsibility is to provide financially? Unlocking the gendered expectations is the key to ensuring that you can both, equally, fulfil your career and parenting aspirations.

Tip 5: Know your value.
“Recall your achievements, and be able to sell them. We call it your individual employee value proposition, and it is the best tool to help your return to work conversation. It also gives you the confidence to negotiate flexibility (including part time that is really part time, not five days a week crammed into three), and to set boundaries about what is and isn't up for negotiation.”

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