How business can help parents returning to work

Flexible work arrangements and mentorships are just two ideas that organisation can offer to help parents who are returning to the workforce.

Child care and flexible hours might be the main concern for parents and employers, but getting back up to speed and working confidently in a rapidly evolving workplace is another key issue.

1. Dr Gigi Foster

Associate professor with the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales 

 Dr Gigi FosterThere are two big problems here. The first is that if the kids are not yet all of school age, they will need to be looked after by someone. The second is that the would-be worker has often lost touch to some extent with the professional networks that are so crucial to performing well in many modern jobs.

Employers can tackle the first problem by investing in quality child care that is accessible in terms of price and capacity. Child care can be a big barrier to many Australian families considering returning a second income earner to the labour force.

Employers can directly address this by partially subsidising high-quality, on-site child care with available places that don’t have to be reserved years in advance.

However, studies show that the high cost of child care is not the only problem. The second problem is more nuanced.

Returning parents may benefit from an employer’s sponsorship of networking events that promote re-introductions, lunchtime social activities (better for parents than after-work events), mentoring programs and financial support to attend conferences that help them reintegrate. 

“The would-be worker has often lost touch to some extent with the professional networks that are so crucial.” Dr Gigi Foster

Contrary to popular belief, aspects of their networks and identification with those networks can affect the integration of vulnerable workers as much if not more than their technical skills.

Parenting teaches valuable skills, like the ability to retain perspective, prioritise among competing demands, and keep a level head in the midst of chaos. Convincing people with these skills to walk through your door is worth some investment. 

2. Christina Smerdon CPA

Co-creator of Flex Able Certification

 Christina Smerdon CPAThe first step for organisations is to develop the business case for parents returning to work. Consider if the investment in flexible work arrangements and generous gender-neutral parental leave policies, plus the positive PR and increased productivity that come from looking after your people, are worth more than the cost to recruit and train new professionals. It usually is!

Flexible work arrangements need to extend to all employees, not just new mothers. Return-to-work programs also need to on-board parents back to work in a way that allows them to thrive both at work and home.

Setting up parental leave mentorships between employees returning to work and those who have experienced it before can provide guidance throughout the process.

Start the process of making improvements today. It takes a few years to truly embed them throughout the organisation.

“Flexible work arrangements need to extend to all employees, not just new mothers.” Christina Smerdon

During my two years on maternity leave, I discovered my leader [at work] had moved on and the new leader didn’t want the burden of dealing with someone she didn’t know. My employer also didn’t offer flexible work arrangements as the norm and there was no return-to-work program.

We decided to take a financial hit and I stayed at home with our children for a few years.

The idea of then re-engaging with paid work filled me with fear and doubt – could I still do my job, form coherent sentences and get out the door in one piece each day?

The answer was yes. I found casual accounting work with flexible hours and locations for a small-to-medium enterprise and loved being back at work part-time.

3. Kristy Macfarlane

Head of diversity and inclusion at National Australia Bank

 Kristy MacfarlaneThe two most important things organisations can do to help parents who are returning to work is to support flexible work where it meets business needs, and to have inclusive, authentic conversations.

Managers must be equipped to have open conversations about the challenges of returning, and how flexibility might better enable the return. At National Australia Bank (NAB), the majority of our people – men and women – work flexibly.

Having a manager who can give confidence injections is invaluable, too, especially in the first few months back at work when parents have been away for an extended period.

It’s also important parents don’t miss out on salary increases or important business updates just because they are on parental leave. At NAB, our employees receive a remuneration review upon returning to work, and we keep in touch with them while they are away.

I was promoted at NAB while on parental leave with my first child. After six months I returned to a new job-share role. My husband, who also works at the bank, went part-time to spend precious time with our son.

When my second son arrived I found the double juggle a lot crazier. I took 14 months off and returned to a part-time role. Later I was promoted to another job-share role. Now I work full-time, but flexibly.

“Having a manager who can give confidence injections is invaluable, especially in the first few months back at work ...” Kristy Macfarlane

My two returns to work were different, but there were some constants: I did what was right for my family, my team and my customers, and I had an organisation that truly supported me. 

Professional Development: CPA Q&A. Access a handpicked selection of resources each month and complete a short monthly assessment to earn CPD hours. Exclusively available to CPA Australia members.

The experts

Dr Gigi Foster 
An associate professor with the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales, Gigi Foster works across many subject areas, including education, social influence, corruption, lab experiments, behavioural economics and Australian policy. She is a frequent contributor to public debates about education and economic policy and serves as a member of Australia’s National Economic Panel.

Christina Smerdon CPA 
Christina Smerdon used her audit skills to co-create the Flex Able Certification process, which confirms that a company’s professed flexible work options are a reality. She is also the chief flex enabler at Diverse City Careers, which helps women identify employers who will support their careers by pre-screening organisations on their parental leave policies, flexibility, equal pay and other initiatives.
Kristy Macfarlane 
Head of diversity and inclusion at National Australia Bank, Kristy Macfarlane is an accountant who has spent much of her career working in organisational development.

Read next: Why more businesses need to embrace workplace flexibility

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