Wednesday 17 July 2019

Fiona Ness: Helping staff cope with mother load can deliver for employer and employee

Image: Getty
Image: Getty
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

Emoluments and perquisites: the sweeteners that can entice talented people to take up a job offer, or remain in a job they might otherwise have left.

Whatever about the company car and pension pots — for staff to really know their employers care, they need touchy-feely stuff too. Think snooker tables and doughnuts, free gym memberships and wellness programmes.

Then there’s the perk aimed at keeping a specific type of talented person in the workplace: women (and, no, it isn’t egg freezing).

Maternity coaching — or ‘transition coaching’ in its less gender specific guise — is increasingly being offered free to female staff by companies, mainly in the tech and professional services industries.

Sarah Courtney who is a Maternity coach. Picture By David Conachy.
Sarah Courtney who is a Maternity coach. Picture By David Conachy.

Aimed at bringing women through pregnancy, maternity leave and returned happily to work, maternity coaches mentor pregnant women and their managers through these periods, with the aim of achieving the best outcome for employee and employer alike.

For the employer, the best outcome is that the woman returns to her staff position and continues progressing through the ranks.

For the employee, the best outcome is that she feels supported and able to cope with — and possibly even thrive under — the dual demands of work and family.

In Ireland, just as the world over, women are continuing to drop out of the workforce after childbirth. Government statistics from 2015 show that 86pc of childless women work, compared to 57pc of those with children aged three or under. As the children reach age six and over, only 58pc of mothers are in employment.

It is known that measures to keep mothers in the workplace will be crucial in raising the female participation rate in the workplace to a level deemed necessary to the economy — and nowhere is the problem more acute than at senior management level.


Diversity and inclusion

For big companies looking to their bottom line and under pressure to deliver on diversity and inclusion targets in order to avert a skills crisis and grow their businesses, keeping mothers on their payroll is really important.

While the tech companies have embraced the idea that they need to facilitate their staff’s lives in order to keep them working at maximum output, it’s been a harder concept to translate into other industries where work structures are traditionally more rigid.

According to maternity coach Sarah Courtney, no firm can afford to sit passively while their talented women actively opt out of a leadership career. “Diversity and inclusion is the key to success” in business, says Courtney.

She refers to an increasing body of research that shows that companies and their clients ultimately suffer from a lack of diverse voices and leadership styles within their organisation. “We have to keep experienced women in the workplace, and smart employers know that and they are doing it.”

A 2015 study by the Financial Times found that only one in five women were in senior roles amongst the top employers. In banks and the big accountancy firms only 16pc of partnership and managing director roles were filled by women. A study by the 30% Club, meanwhile, found that in legal firms, men were 10 times more likely to be promoted than women, and four times more likely in accountancy.

Courtney says that coaching women back to work is something women themselves want, but that it makes financial sense for their employers too.

“It is hard to fill the vacancies women leave when they drop out of employment. It takes 20pc to 25pc of the first year of salary just to hire someone; and that doesn’t include the man-hours — the gathering of CVs, the training — it’s a huge cost to a company to have to hire someone, especially if it could be easily avoided.”

For the price of three coaching sessions, Courtney says companies get something invaluable: “Retention — of people who want to be there.”

With a background in HR, Courtney says she, like many women who returned to the workplace after the birth of her first child, focused more on doing a good job and being more ambitious.

“I felt there was a lot more at stake; I had a child who needed to be supported. I wanted her to have a role model — a mum who was working for a reason, doing something she loved, not just for a pay cheque. If I was going to leave her, it would have to be for a very good reason.”

At that time, Courtney says many people she came into contact with personally and professionally were struggling with the same issues.

They wanted to be in the workplace but they wanted to have a family life too.

By the time Courtney had her second child, she says it was time to do something different. “Something that would fit in with my family. Something I could control. I wanted to support parents.”

Courtney now works with firms to implement in-house maternity coaching programmes.

Through the coaching process she advises the employer and employee how to evaluate the parameters of the woman’s job, and seek to balance that with the changes in her personal circumstances. She advises on everything from how to react when a staff member tells you they are pregnant —“‘congratulations’ should be the first word out of your mouth” — to the levels at which an employee may want to stay in touch with their employers during maternity leave (“this ranges from an occasional coffee with your boss to keep-in-touch days to attending meetings and availing of training”).


Can you deliver?

In many instances, a formal flexible working plan is constructed through the coaching process. The plan enables the woman to continue to deliver on her tasks, but gives her more control over how and when this happens.

The process involves concessions on the part of the employer in terms of the woman’s working times and availability, in return for retaining her skills within their talent pool.

Crucially — the work must still get done.

In order to embrace the formal flexible working agreements for parents, employers have had to shift their emphasis from the hours they expect employees to be at their desk to ‘did they deliver on their task’? But does this work in practice?

Companies offering maternity coaching say they have had such a positive response amongst women for the initiative, that they have rolled it out to new fathers too.

At global accountancy firm EY, 20pc of employees who are on a formal flexible working plan are men. Here in Ireland, the firm began looking at policy changes for pregnant women back in 2015. “When people step away from the business, the business needs to keep on running and supporting clients, but when people come back, how do we support them? We recognised we weren’t great about that,” says the director of HR for EY Ireland, Jan Smullen.

“Also, looking ahead at the talent pipeline — [we were asking] will we have enough senior people in years to come. And thinking about our female pipeline [we were asking] what proportion of those senior people will be women. We realised we needed to start a discussion about the types of things that would enable us to grow this talent pipeline, and the sorts of problems that were blocking it.”

Smullen says that EY, a company that trades on its ability to innovate for its clients, realised its own business had to become more agile.

In essence, it had to practise what it preached. “We have to reflect that [innovation] internally, not just for clients. And we found that the nature of our business is that it does support flexibility.”

Smullen says EY’s uptake of maternity coaching is not only about retaining staff but part of a larger agenda to attract senior people, mid-career. She says that three years on, the impact of the changes are being felt.

“Just looking at the promotions coming through, there has been a big shift in terms of females coming through in senior positions this year. Going forward we will have a much stronger cadre of [female] role models — people other women can ask and say ‘how did you do it? How did you manage your work/life balance?’. If you don’t have those role models, you can’t have those practical conversations.

“It’s hard to say, you’ve done X and the impact is Y, but the business has continued to perform strongly so [flexible working] hasn’t inhibited business. It has definitely been an enabler in attracting talent from a whole myriad of disciplines. We watch things like attrition and promotions coming through. The better things work, the expectations are raised.”


No flex

Another lightbulb moment for EY came in 2017, when it decided to roll out its parent coaching service to new dads too. The assurance director of EY Ireland, Peter Rogan, was on the pilot course. Did it make him re-evaluate his work practices to take a count of his change in circumstances?

“There’s definitely been a change in my work pattern. My hours are very different. Sometimes I come in early and sometimes I work later — I have to balance that on a day-to-day basis. I want to bring my son to creche every day. If I’m doing these things, ‘No Flex’ goes in the diary.

“It was a big step to do that initially. I was always someone who could be

relied on to be at my desk at a

certain time. Coaching helped me work out how to have the conversation with people here to arrange that change.”

But what of the people who don’t have children? Do they resent the concessions being made to their senior colleagues?

“Lots of people working with me are straight out of college,” says Rogan. “I think it’s more inspiring for them to see me making time for other commitments, than resentful I am not just a robot who works. This brings out the human side, encourages you to think of things outside of work, which makes it a nicer place to work.”

And with that, ‘no flex’ time is over and

Rogan’s gone. Sprinting down the corridor back to the day job.

Smullen emphasises that children or not, no flexible working conversation is off the table. “If you have other things that periodically place demands on you — caring for parents, medical appointments, study… everyone’s needs are different. It’s what’s important in your own life.”

Whether maternity coaching will make a long-term change to female participation rates in the workforce has yet to be measured. Maternity coach Courtney says that many of the conversations women have during their coaching sessions relate to the inequality in the division of domestic chores between them and their partners (“you’re going to have to accept that your kitchen may never be clean — or get a cleaner”), as much as the need for greater flex in their working environment. It seems that the female ‘mental load’ might be the greatest inhibitor of all to women seeking to excel at work while being invested in motherhood.

And even when employers are helping, for every industry making headway, there are others still rigidly adhering to the nine till whenever-we-say-you-can-leave rule.

“I would love to see the legal sector getting on board with it,” Courtney says. “People are leaving and it’s such a loss to those industries. I would love to see real change in companies that are fearful of changing how they work.”


Maternity tips

Ever worried how to tell your employer your pregnant, or how to return to working at your pre-baby level? Maternity coaching has the answers:


1 You can never communicate too much. Don’t let your employer assume what you will want to do on your return. Tell them. Think of the consequences of having a negative discussion.


2 Decide how and when you want to leave. Build in some leeway and be part of the solutions for the company in filling your work when you are away. You could be part of hiring someone new or of sharing out the workload amongst team members. Communicate your leave as a development opportunity for your staff.


3 Wait before setting parameters. You don’t know how you are going to feel or what it is going to be like, post-baby.


4 Keep in touch. Make sure your employer knows at what level you want to be kept involved, during your maternity leave.


5 Back to work. Meet colleagues and bosses for coffee. Find out what has been going on. Remind yourself about all the good things about work.


6 Decide what is important. Be explicit if your job is important and you want to come back and continue with your career. You have to say what you want.


7 Talk about how you want to come back. The practical things to put in place. If your employer blocks you from trying to make things work, they are not going to keep you.


8 Your employer should consider your requests. Think — what are they concerned about? If they are going to allow you to work non-standard hours, how are you going to make sure nothing suffers as a result?


9 Put practical supports in place. You’re going to need a cleaner...


10 Own your decision. Don’t apologise for asking for concessions if you are clear you are still going to deliver.

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