The government has introduced the new Fair Work Bill that covers quite a lot of ground, but one area I have been struggling to come to terms with is the mandate to provide flexible working hours for working parents with children under school age.
Let me say from the outset that I am both a business owner and a mother, so I sit firmly upon the dividing line that separates both sets of needs.
On the surface, like proposing a national filter to “protect our kids from Internet nasties”, mandating businesses to provide flexible working hours for parents looks like a no-brainer, but dig a little deeper and it’s unclear exactly how it will be achieved without some major headaches.
Like all blanket solutions to very complex problems, I feel the mandate may end up doing a disservice to both employers and employees.
We understand how this flexibility works, and more importantly, what doesn’t work.
We are committed to finding a solution for working parents because we understand how important it is to attract and retain highly skilled team members, and the need to maintain a work/life balance, however this is difficult in client service businesses like ours. We’ve deployed technologies and processes to ensure that our clients’ needs are always met regardless of how we service them. This helps to balance the needs of the business, which is vital to everyone’s success, with the needs of the employee.
Smart phones, instant messaging services, secure logins to the company network, and clear processes on how work is to be done (for example, responding to emails or calls within two hours), are some ways that we’ve found to help manage a flexible workforce.
We also know that it requires a great deal of trust in the employee to hold up their end of the bargain. We need to trust that they can be self-managers who ‘meet the hours’ so that what they say they will do, is done. For example, when working from home, we expect employees not to go to the park or hit the shops during office hours. While tempting, it creates issues within small teams in particular.
The other side of the coin as business managers is perception management. For example, it’s hard for team members without kids to see other employees keeping different hours. This can spark resentment and mistrust, which leads to loss of morale that can spiral into a large issue if not brought to the surface and managed effectively.
The solution is unclear, but mandates are rarely the panacea they promise to be. In particular, businesses need to have in place a set of very clear guidelines about how these flexible working hours should be implemented, and communicate this clearly and often to both working parents and the rest of the team. Most importantly these need to be regularly reviewed to make sure they’re still working and meeting the needs of the business and the employee.
Unfortunately, the Fair Work Bill does not go far enough. In my experience, it’s once your kids hit school age that the real juggle begins. School hours don’t work with standard working hours – at least one parent needs to attend momentous school activities (such as parades and carnivals), and school holidays are significantly longer than annual leave allowances. Moreover, there is no assistance that helps fund after-school and school holiday programs for working parents – unlike childcare.
Employers need to think about how they can help their employees juggle their parental responsibilities way beyond ‘under school age’.