Family-friendly policies fall flat if workers pressured to stay on task 24-7

Corporate leaderships need to ensure policies such as flexible schedules and work-from-home are available in practice if they want to retain caring staff

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 9:15pm

Family-friendly work practices have received much more attention over the past decade from companiesas more women join the workforce, and dual-career couples and single parent households become common - not just in Hong Kong, but around the world.

In response, many organisations profess to be a destination of choice for women and cite flexible work schedules, opportunities to work from home, job share at all levels and other progressive programmes to back up this assertion.

Family-friendly policies can help people manage multiple work and personal responsibilities but the availability of initiatives alone does not address fundamental aspects of a company or parts of it, which can inhibit staff at all levels from successfully balancing career and family. To properly evaluate the success of these initiatives is to disentangle policy availability from take-up and the effects on talent attraction and retention.

Women ... face negative judgments regarding their lack of commitment to a team, the customer experience or their employer

Family-friendly policies, irrespective of whether they are progressive or not, do not account for an organisational culture that impedes women from using the options available. I have observed many cases where women who take advantage of such policy options, visibly demonstrating interest in family and personal life, face negative judgments regarding their lack of commitment to a team, the customer experience or their employer.

I have also spoken to women who are dissuaded from utilising such schemes for fear of a stigma associated with having carer responsibilities. This fear is not unfounded as evidenced by many careers that have derailed because people took advantage of family- friendly programmes.

The latest research at the University of New South Wales shows key attributes shaping take-up and positive outcomes of family-friendly work practices are the collective characteristics of a firm’s senior leadership team.

Specifically, the attributes and behaviour of the top team influence how line managers and employees frame problems, what goals they perceive are important and consequently the level of support or enthusiasm line managers allocate to various initiatives.

Apart from the most obvious characteristics around participation rates of women in senior ranks, equity in compensation, and advancement of women with families, other more subtle behaviours reduce the effectiveness of family-friendly programmes.

For example, informal norms that international experience is a requirement to get ahead, that after hours or late in the day meetings are reasonable, and allocation of substantial work late on Friday for a Monday morning return sends signals about what the organisation really regards as important.

Senior leaders being connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week can unintentionally send a message that employees should also be involved in work matters outside normal hours. Moreover, it is often the case that employees who engage in this way are regarded as high performers with superior levels of commitment. Worse, if these types of behaviours are repeated regularly a culture may be solidified that is very difficult to uproot.

Despite expanding discussion on the topic there is a policy-practice gap, because the concept of the “ideal” worker is still associated with total dedication to the job and does not acknowledge caretaking responsibilities. As a result there is an urgent need for a paradigm shift in how work is done.

Why are Japanese working themselves to death?

After all, it’s about what a worker achieves, and how they go about it, rather than time sitting at their desk and always “being on” that counts. What would managers like to pay for - a staff member who is always there, and present, or one who gets the job done well, and who also enjoys spending time with their family?

So for managers, be they in Kowloon, Sydney or anywhere else around the world, here are three assumptions for this new paradigm that perhaps they could consider:

All employees have interests outside work; all employees will need to adjust the time they spend doing paid and unpaid work at various stages of their lives; all workers are responsible for achieving desired outcomes.

At the end of the day, women and men have increasing caretaker responsibilities outside work. With more dual-couple careers and an ageing population resulting in growing numbers of employees with responsibilities for older relatives it is now an issue for both women and men. I believe that the war for talent may be the most important factor for future business competitiveness and cultures of flexibility where employees are evaluated on performance, not presence, will help determine which companies recruit and retain top talent.

Finally, and as you read this at a weekend hopefully enjoying some family time in Hong Kong before the festive season, I suggest you think about overhauling the concept of the “ideal” worker. Employers who evaluate staff on performance rather than presence will ultimately win the war for talent.

Professor Julie Cogin is director of the AGSM at UNSW Business School and deputy dean of the UNSW Australia Business School