Australia's most family-friendly workplaces

Keeping working parents happy is all part of securing the best talent.
Keeping working parents happy is all part of securing the best talent. 

When the Labor Government confirmed plans to introduce paid maternity leave in 2011 in last month’s budget, it was a positive move forward in the Fresh Ideas for Work and Family Initiative that also includes the right to extend unpaid parental leave beyond one year and business grants for companies to help them become more family friendly. But Tony Abbott’s counter-response called for six months paid leave on full salary, with ongoing super contributions, making Labor’s scheme seem measly in comparison. Abbott proposes to fund the scheme by taxing big businesses by 1.7% but a spokesperson for the Business Council of Australia said big businesses were already doing the heavy lifting on paid parental leave.

Small and medium sized companies do offer paid parental leave less frequently than big businesses and are also lagging behind in other areas. New flexible working arrangements are something the Labor Government is pushing in addition to paid leave but businesses currently only have to agree on these on a voluntary basis.

When editor of UK vogue Alex Shulman commented last year that women who requested flexible working arrangements had no consideration for the needs of the businesses they worked for, and the inconvenience they caused to childless colleagues who had to take on extra tasks, she echoed the sentiments of many businesses the world over, who claim it is too expensive to accommodate the needs of working parents although research has shown that employees who are allowed to work flexibly are more loyal and conscientious.

There are companies that are already offering a range of family friendly work practices to their staff because of the positive effect they have on productivity and morale but many small and medium sized businesses are yet to follow their lead. Here are some of the family friendly policies that forward-thinking Australian corporations are already providing to keep their staff happy and their companies running smoothly.

Paid maternity leave

Westpac and American Express both offer employees have been employed for 12 months or longer, 12 weeks paid parental or adoption leave at full pay or 24 weeks at half pay if they will be the primary caregiver.

Optus offers paid maternity leave of up to 12 weeks, in addition to 2 weeks paid paternity leave and adoption leave and assesses leave on a case by case basis for employees who have been working there less than 12 months.

Qantas also offers 12 weeks paid leave plus a week of paid leave to the parent who is not the primary caregiver and ANZ does the same, irrespective of an employee’s length of service. Major law firm, Allen Arthur Robinson is the most generous employer with paid leave, offering 13 weeks paid maternity leave and two weeks paid paternity leave, although Westpac will soon be increasing their leave scheme to 13 weeks under new enterprise agreements.

All of these companies also have some form of transition program to ensure working parents have support in the initial stages of their return to work and regular meetings to review and evaluate how the employee is coping.

All of the companies listed above said they were waiting and paying close attention to see how the government would be instituting the paid maternity leave scheme before they made any further decisions on their policies. But many of them already offer something the Labor government’s scheme does not include - paid paternity leave - and often with the option to take the payment at full or half salary. The $570 cap on the government payment means that any Australian women who earn more than this when working full time, will be worse off under Kevin Rudd’s scheme and will still need maternity leave payments from their employers to maintain financial stability.

Nicola Wolny, Diversity & Inclusion Manager for American Express, recently returned to work after nine months leave following the birth of her first child. "American Express paid me at half-pay for the first six months of my maternity leave so my family didn't experience any financial stress.  The regular income I received gave me security and peace of mind so that I could focus on my son and not have to worry about paying the bills,” she says.

Flexible working arrangements
Flexible working arrangements can encompass many things – part time work, job sharing, variable hours and working from home. All of these options are considered by these six companies to work out how an employee’s needs can be accommodated within their job description. But most importantly most of these working arrangements are offered to all employees, and not just working parents, so that resentment doesn’t build up between employees with children and employees without children.

ANZ offers part time work programs which allow full time employees to preserve their right to a full time role while working part time and Westpac gives employees the right to return to request to return to work on a part time basis until children reach school age, plus flexible use of sick leave to attend pregnancy related medical appointments and to care for sick family members.  

Allens Arthur Robinson has a flexibility team, run by Head of Flexibility & Diversity Dr Jacqui Abbott to promote the idea of flexible working. “Law may be perceived as a tough industry but the firm has seen an increase in the number of lawyers adopting flexible working arrangements for a range of reasons including undertaking study, leisure activities, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, contributing to the community and spending quality time with friends and family,” says Jacqui.

Some companies have their own personalised flexibility practices such as Qantas where flight attendants can bid for trips and reserve lines to best suit their schedules, and American Express’s innovative Summer Hours Policy which allows staff to alter their regular work week for extended weekends in the summer months and the ability to purchase additional vacation days from their base salary.  

Stuart Elliott, Head of People Strategy and Development at Westpac says “When my second daughter was born I took four months off to look after her and since then I have worked four days a week and look after both my daughters, now aged 6 and 4, on the fifth day. My wife and I both work four days a week and manage the rest of the time with childcare, school and some fantastic friends. As the father of girls I don’t want them to be limited in their expectations of themselves or women in general. Family friendly policies are Westpac’s way of recognising that the days of Dad going off to work and Mum staying at home to look after the kids are no longer the reality for many. People are sharing more and more of the responsibilities and businesses have to have policies that reflect this reality.”

Breastfeeding facilities
Because the parental leave schemes for these companies all end before the recommended six month period for breastfeeding babies, the issue of continuing breastfeeding has been addressed by providing private facilities for feeding babies or expressing (to prevent mothers from having to pump milk in the toilets) and allocating time during the work day to do this, with encouragement from management.

Westpac, Allens Arthur Robinson, Optus and American Express all have breast feeding facilities within their head offices and plan to continue implementing these in offices in other states. ANZ also allows access to a private manager’s office if a building does not have these facilities and Qantas has nursing facilities at each of their Joey’s childcare centres. Jodie Earnshaw, a Qantas senior adviser in Safety Promotion and Human Factors says, “I chose to return to work a couple of months early as I was offered a place for my son at the Joey Club at Mascot in Sydney and I was able to continue breastfeeding in a relaxed and supportive environment which could not have been accomplished at another centre away from work.”

On-site childcare or childcare assistance
Working parents who have access to childcare resources are less likely to be late and stressed, so it’s a natural progression for companies to include this as part of a family friendly corporate strategy.

As part of Allen Arthur Robinson’s ‘Managing the Transition” program parents are given a childcare information kit with details on childcare facilities and fees, in addition in one-on-one pre and post parental leave sessions to discuss how individuals are coping and ensuring a smooth transition. ANZ recently purchased places at the Lady Gowrie Child Care Centre in Docklands, located close to ANZ Melbourne headquarters, and provides childcare assistance to employees working in other Australian areas, through its Work/Life Links service. This is similar to American Express’s free childcare referral and research service run by an organisation called Families at Work to give parents a number of childcare options, ranging from full time childcare to seasonal care such as school holiday camps, although employees must pay for the expense of the childcare itself.

But Optus, Westpac and Qantas are ahead with their childcare services benefits. Optus offers both an online childcare resource that provides information on a wide variety of childcare services in conjunction with and the Sydney headquarters of Optus also offers an on-site childcare facility for the children of their employees.

Qantas offers online resources too and has three onsite Joey Club childcare centres in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane where parents can drop by for a visit at any time of day and all the meals are prepared on site, prioritising the nutrition of the children at the centre. Co-located child care facilities are also available in selected Westpac sites, run by a third party and provided to employees who work in those sites in Sydney and Melbourne.

“I use Optus’ on-site child care facility for all three of my kids, making it much easier to do drop offs and picks ups,” says Andrea Maher, a human resources consultant at Optus. “It means the kids ultimately do shorter days in care because work is right there so there’s no extra travelling time to collect them and when my little ones are sick I am right there.”

Most people will combine work with starting and raising a family at some point in their lives, regardless of gender, so that it seems reasonable that everyone should have the same parental leave entitlements and access to flexibility, regardless of where they work. But policy analyst, Jessica Brown warns, “There is a danger of family friendly policies are made mandatory, businesses could decide it is easier and cheaper to discriminate against women of childbearing age when hiring. The Productivity Commission also notes that the cost to business of paid parental leave will be clawed back through slower wage growth which may mean a widening of the wage differential between men and women. We need to be aware of the potential for these unintended negative outcomes.”

So as the paid maternity leave scheme is ushered in, small and medium sized businesses need to find a solution to manage the costs of making family friendly benefits available to all staff (not just mums) in order to help parents feel that their roles as parents and employees are equally important, and share the load with larger Australian corporations and a Liberal or Labor Government.

Chat with other working parents on the Essential Baby Forums.

Family friendly policies are Westpac’s way of recognising that the days of Dad going off to work and Mum staying at home to look after the kids are no longer the reality for many.