Making work family friendly

by 04 Feb 2008

Setting up a workplace crèche is often thrown into the too hard basket due to issues such as risk, space, liability and capital. But with more than 300,000 women in the labour force having a baby every year, an increasing number of organisations are putting crèches in place to help retain an important segment of skilled employees. Sarah O Carroll reports

More and more companies are investing in on-site crèches, and those who have, have reaped the rewards both financially and culturally.

“It has been enormously rewarding for the business, for me personally, and it has actually really changed the culture of the company for the better,”says Allison Lee, director of Impact Communications.

Lee and her business partner turned one of the rooms of their building into a crèche with two nannies and provided childcare service to their employees as part of their salary package. “Our clients responded brilliantly to it and were really impressed by it. It is something employers can do very easily and it is something that their employees are going to respond to very warmly,” she says.

According to Lee, it was the key driver in not only attracting senior experienced women back to the workforce but also getting employees back to work earlier after childbirth. “It has attracted senior staff which is a real issue for the PR industry because it’s dominated by women. They get into their 30s, they have a child, and there is no support for them to come back to work so they leave the industry. Providing a crèche allows us to tap into the market of women who are well-trained, well-experienced, but just need that something else. There is also the breastfeeding issue attached. What it means for me as an employer is that my staff can come back to work earlier because they can breastfeed at work,” she says.

Crunching the numbers

In 2005, 118,000 women returned to work when their child was six months old or less, 75,000 returned before the child was three months old. Having a breastfeeding friendly work environment encourages and eases the transition for these many women back to work while still nursing their infants.

“Public health recommendations are that children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months,” says Nicole Manuff of the Australian Breastfeeding Association. “In terms of breastfeeding the crèche model works really well. It also has a positive impact on productivity as the employee’s mind is at ease. Creating a supportive breastfeeding environment can deliver significant cost savings associated with improved retention rates, earlier return to work, duration of service and reduced recruitment and retraining costs,” she says.

Manuff emphasised the importance of these crèches not just for the parents but also for young people who are thinking about starting a family soon.

“The interesting thing about having a crèche on site is the group of young people who don’t have children but are ‘potentially pregnant’. If they see that flexibility in action and really and truly balancing work and family and still doing a good job, later on when they decide to have their own family they will be more likely to come back to work for the same company,” she says.

Impact Communications has 10 employees, and Lee described the setting up of the crèche as remarkably easily, with the main challenge to commit to finding space and suitable nannies. “Small businesses who say they’re too small to warrant a crèche, they’re not. All they have to do is make a commitment to space within the office and the commitment to hiring someone to staff it. The rewards for both staff and company are enormous,” she says.

Larger organisations often see the challenge of setting up a workplace crèche as too risky. However 52 per cent of all mothers with children under the age of four are in the workforce and an astounding 74 per cent of all children under the age of four are using formal childcare. As such, demand does not seem to be an issue, according to James Ward of Childcare Solutions.

“The main obstacle for a company to set up a workplace crèche is the structure that the Federal Government has imposed on the corporate childcare model which is the requirement to have control of the property and they must do that by having a property lease. If you’re talking a property lease on commercial real estate in the Sydney CBD, you’re talking exposure to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in potential risk if nobody turns up to use the crèche. And they see that as a liability. The reality is of course that you’re operating at the other end of the spectrum with long waiting lists and high demand,” says Ward.

“Legal partners who are not experts in the childcare market may not necessarily see it in those terms. So they see it as what we would call a contingent liability. If everything goes completely wrong they’ll be left holding onto a property lease. They think that’s a bit too risky. So it’s a few hundred thousand dollars future liability under very extreme circumstances but this is a known saving of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, if not millions. Some of the banks are talking about saving a few million dollars a year on the basis of risking a couple of hundred thousand dollars in rent. So you’d think it’s a no-brainer but you know that’s their decision to make.”

Childcare in practice

Aversion to risk has been less prevalent among the financial sector with ANZ, GE Money and Commonwealth Bank leading the way with childcare initiatives. The rewards are reaped by both employer and employee alike.

Kathy Finckh, manager of diversity, and Sam Sheppard, executive general manager of HR, talent and development from Commonwealth Bank (CBA) says a workplace childcare centre has contributed to the bank’s holistic approach to attracting and retaining top talent.

“We have seven nominated childcare centres; two of which are purpose built, one in the Sydney CBD and one at Sydney Olympic Park where we’ve just established a new campus for our employees,” says Finckh.

Sheppard adds: “We’re always looking at the value proposition we offer our employees, regardless of where they are in their life stage; are they parents, are they grandparents, are they single, are they young etcetera. And this will continue to be a very important focus for us, particularly as we drive to increase our representation of women at all levels of leadership in the organisation.”

The availability of childcare has benefitted both men and women, and had a positive impact on the culture, according to Sheppard. “There has been a huge positive reaction from non-users of our childcare centre and the fact that as an employer overall, we seem to be assisting parents staying in the workplace,” she says.

“I know one man who would not accept a new, senior role unless he had a childcare place for his child. He had a primary care responsibility and needed to have that as part of that employment contract. So I think it’s equally important for the men as women.”

An employees perspective

One such employee, Asheesh Shrivastav, has seen a big difference in daughter Aarushy since she joined the CBA childcare centre and the benefits to him have been enormous. “It’s such a beautiful centre; she’s close to me and it allows her mother to go out and work. When she first joined the centre they would send me a few emails throughout the day letting me know how she is. My daughter has benefitted a lot and I can see her growing in confidence since she joined. I honestly would not look for a job elsewhere because of my situation here,” says Asheesh.

Paola Molina, an executive manager with Commonwealth Bank, has also made use of the childcare facilities. “I had tried other childcare centres which were close to home but it wasn’t working out because for one the level of service I was getting from the childcare centre wasn’t great and also I had to leave work very early to actually get to the childcare centre in time to pick her up,” she says. “Now I’m five minutes away from the childcare centre so I can leave work at a reasonable time and still be there to pick her up. I don’t have to worry about traffic. And also I get to spend more time with her in the morning coming to work and also going home.”

Molina says this childcare facility has influenced people’s decision to come and work for the company. “There are a couple of parents who have actually delayed taking a position within the bank until they knew they had a spot for their child in the bank’s childcare centre. So it has actually made a huge impact in attracting the right people into the bank. And I think it really does help in terms of career progression not having to leave work early every day to pick your child up,” she says

Workplace crèches have been successful in many organisations in giving women that crucial help needed in making the transition back to work. Between logistics and time saved, peace of mind, ability to breastfeed, and overall work-life harmony, more companies are seriously considering this option to improve attraction and retention rates.