Great workplace ... Kikki K staff member Francesca Pizzey with her son, Maximus.

Great workplace ... Kikki K staff member Francesca Pizzey with her son, Maximus. Photo: Arsineh Houspian

Thoughtworks Australia managing director, Lindy Stephens knew there was only one solution to her problem. 

Her IT company was spending big money on the recruitment of women, only to lose its investment when female employees left to have babies. She decided to introduce a generous 18 weeks paid parental scheme.

Thoughtworks, ranked number 49 on this year's BRW's Best Places to Work list, offers the highest levels of paid parental leave of the companies included on the list. Its benefits go above and beyond the federal government's 18 weeks' paid leave, and employees aren’t required to work for a certain amount of time before becoming eligible for the payment. 

Stephens says the IT consultancy's goal is to be recognised as a supporter of women in business, and an employer of choice in the tech sector.

"We don't care if you're pregnant when you join us or if you get pregnant within a month or year of starting here. If we've paid to recruit you, we want to make it easier for you … and for you to return to work," Stephens says.

But Thoughtwork's views on paid parental leave aren’t the norm for companies on the BRW's Best Places to Work list.

Despite research suggesting that companies with generous maternity and parental leave schemes do a better job at recruiting and retaining professional women, just 33 per cent on this year's list offer parental leave incentives greater than the government's scheme.

Emma Isaacs, chief executive of women's leadership organisation Business Chicks, says paid maternity leave is an employee benefit that is becoming increasingly important in business, and a "must-have" for many women looking for new jobs. She is not, however, surprised that many Australian companies still fail to offer the incentive to their employees.

"It's one of the first things that a female candidate will tick off in her mind during the interview process when searching for a new employer. However, because of the fear and stigma still surrounding career breaks for new mothers, they won't be overt about it and will often play it cool, and pass over the benefit pretending that they won't be needing that any time soon," Isaacs says.

"To become more family friendly, initiatives like 'bring your kids to work' day are great, as are spaces where breastfeeding and changing can occur, and social events which involve the family," Isaacs says. 

"On an everyday basis though, it's about not raising your eyebrows or rolling your eyes when a colleague has to step out to collect a sick kid or leave 10 minutes early to make it to daycare in time before they close. These things will happen, and it needs to be culturally accepted that it's a part of life."

Another crucial step is assuming that it is the woman's responsibility to handle child care and most of the domestic responsibilities.

"Smart employers will work to find solutions for childcare and will promote truly flexible working arrangements," Isaacs says. 

"I've seen so many companies give lip service to flexible working arrangements [but] their written policy paints a very different picture to what their management say and believe about employees working from home."

Small incentives work at Kikki K

Kikki K chief executive Paul Lacy says he and his wife, Kristina Karlsson, decided to offer family-friendly incentives to the 700 employees of their stationery business only after becoming parents themselves. They say small incentives are often valued highly by staff and help to build loyalty.

Lacy says his business – which has 82 stores in three countries – wanted employee incentives that stood out from the crowd. One such incentive is a three-month supply of newborn nappies for employees who have a baby while working for Kikki K. 

Parents who want to work part-time, or do shorter days, work well in the company's stores, and Lacy says he wanted to find a better way of keeping those employees.

"We have a five-year-old and a two-year-old. We understand the juggle of working and being a parent. We struggled just like anyone else," he says. 

"We wanted a way we could stay connected with our valued employees while doing something really practical to support them at that time in their lives."

Kikki K also pays employees to take their birthday off every year.

The company – which aims to become the top ranking company on BRW's Best Places to Work list in the next few years – also offers other "random acts of kindness", such as discounted trips to the businesses "heartland" in Sweden to stay at Lacy and Karlsson's holiday house.

"It does become harder to do these kinds of things as you grow, but we try to be as accommodating as we can," Lacy says.

THE STANDOUT PERFORMERS 

Maternity leave 

  • Thoughtworks: 18 weeks full pay
  • Coleman Brands: 12 weeks full pay
  • Octavia: three months full pay (six months half pay)
  • Hitachi Data: 12 weeks full pay

Family-friendly benefits 

• 18 weeks paid unconditional parental leave (Thoughtworks)
• Access to a property for holidays (TRC Group)
• 12-month sabbaticals (Readify)
• Finish early on Fridays (Amgen)
• Three month supply of nappies for newborns, discounted trips to Sweden (on a case-by-case basis) and birthday leave (Kikki K)
• Birthday leave (Auscoal)
• No working overtime policy (Campaign Monitor)
• Three half-day Fridays to be taken throughout summer (OMD)
• Finish early on Fridays during summer and an extra week’s leave after 12-months’ service (MediaCom)

This article first appeared on BRW.  

What other family-friendly options would you like to see in Australian workplaces? Comment below.