HR Leaders: Thriving at work and at home

‘Our home life outside of work needs just as much watering and feeding as our work life does’, says Parents at Work founder and CEO Emma Walsh

Parents at Work provides workplace advisory and education solutions to help people thrive at work and at home. Founder and CEO Emma Walsh spoke with HRDTV about what led her to start the organisation and the importance of building leadership capabilities to ensure leaders are equipped to manage people effectively. 

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Kylie Speer [00:00:08] Hello, and welcome to HRD TV. I'm Kylie Speer and we're so happy that you can join us for the latest installment of our Inspirational Leaders series. Joining me today is Emma Walsh, founder and CEO at Parents at Work. Since 2007, Parents at Work has provided essential family career and wellbeing services to over half a million families globally through their workplace advisory and education solutions to help people thrive at work and at home. Welcome to you, Emma. And thank you so much for being here today.

Emma Walsh [00:00:45] Thanks, Kylie. It's great to be here and having this conversation.

Kylie Speer [00:00:49] Well, firstly, Emma, you're the founder and CEO of Parents at Work. Can you tell us a little more about the organization, how it came to be and the services you provide?

Emma Walsh [00:01:02] Thanks for the opportunity. Yes, well, I guess like many social enterprises, it comes with a personal story. And you know, I have to sort of go back a step to, to imagine, or take the audience back, if you'd like to imagine 17 years ago, which was me, in a sort of career coming out of a really in house HR role, where I was starting to think about having family myself, and how I was going to manage work and family life, and what that was going to be like, for me. And unfortunately, my experience at that point today hadn't been a positive one, when I looked at how women in particular, were treated, first of all around having family and then how that integration and transition back to work was being managed. Now, that's new from an HR point of view at the time, that there could and should be a much better way of doing it. But really workplaces weren't tapped into the importance of supporting and women in particular, through that position, or through that stage of life and how they could better attach them to the workplace or keep them attached to the workplace and then integrate them back. And so began a really lifelong, almost vacation for me and journey, which I still think now 17 years on, how am I still here talking about this? Have we not solved this problem yet? But as it turns out no, we haven't. But we have made great progress. And I look forward to sharing some of that with you today. But yes, it began 17 years ago. At the time, I was thinking about having family as it turned out, I not long after stepping out of the workforce and starting to think about doing independent HR work and helping moms return to the workplace, that I fell pregnant with twins. And I thought, oh, maybe this was meant to be this is obviously going to be a juggle for me. And maybe I can make myself my own experiment in a way. And lo and behold, I guess it's one of those things. I think like many things, when you have a sort of social passion for something, you get more and more drawn to it. And the more and more drawn to it, I got the normal conversation I had with other moms around how they were experiencing going back to the work, the more and more I felt compelled to think there's got to be a better way. And with my HR experience, how can I somehow educate workplaces to get better at this. And really, then the last 17 years is about being doing that. So we've built out an organization that really is focused on social impact. So it's about, you know, how do we not just help moms, but families more broadly, manage their work and family life in a way that allows both to thrive. And that is actually a huge problem to, you know, take on and not something that anywhere anywhere in the world is actually sold for? So it's taking a big social challenge and thinking about right, well, what can we do that makes this easier? And why would that matter? Why should we be focused on that? So that work that we do today is really about working with organizations to identify, first of all, how family friendly are they? What are the kinds of policies and practices that they have in place in the organization that can help their people manage their work and family commitments? And equally, what education support do their employees and leaders need? That helps them help themselves at actually being able to thrive at work and at home? So we sort of have these two two pronged approach to really supporting organizations to build their internal capability at this so that they can more effectively not only run their businesses and people feeling productive at work, but people feeling that they're not overly you know, compromised in home life as well. really meady problem to solve for and work that I feel even 17 years on today really compelled in and inspired to do.

Kylie Speer [00:05:11] Necessity certainly is the mother of invention, as they say, pardon the pun, Emma. And what can you tell us about your overarching leadership development and L&D strategies at Parents at Work?

Emma Walsh [00:05:26] Yeah, I think look so much is about leadership. Because no, because, you know, when you look at all the research around why do people leave jobs, often it comes down to two key things. One is, are they able to, you know, have the flexibility and balance they're looking for, we know work life balance is one always in those top three reasons as to why people leave jobs. And one of the other top three reasons why people leave jobs is the relationship they often have with their leader and their manager, and how effectively their manager supports them to drive at work. And we would say also at home. So really, we're very focused on on building leadership capability and organization to really think about are leaders equipped to manage people effectively, in a ways that not only helps them be productive at their day job and what they do in an organization, but also feeling productive in other parts of their lives. So that is, you know, how effectively are we bringing, and allowing people to bring their whole self to work, to be able to connect their work and home demands. And this is doesn't apply just to parents, by the way, every one of us has a family of some sort that we identify with. And that family and our home life outside of work, needs just as much watering and feeding as our work life does. And they often totally intertwined. They're not separate. And yet, in many workplaces, we've we've trained leaders to be good at managing a team, but really focused on what it is they have to deliver on a work front, and not equipping leaders enough to really be thinking about what's going on. So people in their whole lives and how can managers best support people in you know, with all of those, I guess, the mental juggle that many people have. So the work that we do is about building internal leadership capability, delivering programs that helps leaders to become what we would call more inclusive. So how they tackle the challenges of hybrid work, well being challenges that team members may present with all their families might present with, to domestic and family violence situations, to discrimination issues, to safety at work, and all the things that perhaps sometimes a not a little insidious, actually, we don't always see them. And yet there they are, that they're impacting the ability of teams and individuals to be their best selves at work, and how do we equip managers to identify that, and to be able to lean into that in such a way that those people can have some of those barriers and some of those challenges, at least mitigated in some way. If we have managers that are not equipped to properly address some of those issues, then we just know that the ability for those individuals to be as productive as possible and engaged as possible in those organizations is limited. But we can't expect leaders to just magically acquire those skills. We know that managing people is one of the most challenging things that you know we do in organizations, because you know, people's situations change all the time. And any leader listening to this would know that no day is often the same. You never know what you're gonna get. So how do we make sure that leaders feel equipped to respond effectively? So a lot of the leadership development programs that we run an organization is directed at individual leaders, but it's also directed at leadership of HR people. So how do they make sure that they're developing the right? Or the best practice if you like policies and practices that really support diversity and inclusion and gender equity, all the things that we know, make a huge difference to the way that people are engaged at work. So making sure that they have a hold of the latest research, the latest best practice guides, helping them develop their policies and practices that deliver effectively so it's a really two pronged approach. And then I guess the third organization sort of focusing on education for us is how do we help individual employees self lead? You know, what are the things that they need the education that they need, in order to turn up and be their best self in any given day at work? How do they think about their careers, family and well being? And how well those things are actually being nurtured and looked after? And when it's not and it's feeling depleted? Where do they go for help? And so we are trying to You plug that gap and at least be able to help people get to content and information and education that could help them in those moments.

Kylie Speer [00:10:12] Can you talk us through a specific program or initiative you've rolled out?

Emma Walsh [00:10:18] Yes. Okay. I think what is really a privilege and wonderful thing about the work that we do is no two workplaces there are quite the same, right? Every organization, you know, we have different sizes, different industries, different challenges, and so on. And when we come into an organization, the first thing we always do is look at doing if you like what we would call a benchmark, to really understand what are the challenges that exist in that organization that are preventing it from being what we might call family friendly? And where is it that there is a gap? And what is it that we can actually do that's going to be really targeted to that particular organization, that we know it's going to be able to deliver an impact. So common places to come in and actually work with organizations to do a benchmark. And we we know that that's critical in a step and being able to properly diagnose what an organization needs to start on, in order to sort of get its pillars, right. So we're so committed to that. And one of the things that we're doing is making sure that that benchmarking is something that's available to every workplace, we have this sort of motto in our organization of ''no workplace left behind''. So the benchmarking and being able to come in and talk to us about that is free. You know, we encourage organizations to step forward and benchmark themselves against national work and family standards to then get some feedback. So that's the first thing we do. And then from there, we really start to think of the state around tailoring what specific things that will, you know, work in particular organizations. And it might be, for example, we had an organization not long ago, CEO that contacted me directly, who literally presented his challenge around being deeply worried and concerned about parental leavers about people, unfortunately, leaving his organization that he knew that they needed to be better supported. And this had really come to his attention. And, and in that moment, really feeling what he was feeling around quite distressed about how, you know, this could be solved for they knew that they needed the expertise to do it, and really, that call out immediately go help, what do we need to be doing? And so that's a classic, that's not uncommon, actually, for organizations to come forward with, we have a problem. We know we have a problem. We don't know how to solve it, or we're not sure what to do. What is it that you would advise? So it for us, it's about really straightaway understanding? What are the mitigating factors straightaway that are driving these things in organizations and putting in place? In this case, parental leave programs straightaway that are designed? Will first and foremost triage, if that's what's appropriate, but then actually moving forward on a longer term impact go? Well, if we did this better? How can we measure good outcomes over time, what would be the return on investment to the organization and to the individuals, because the importance here is not just about doing something because it feels good, or we must or all of those things, but to get a feedback loop, because that way, we can look at continuous improvement. So a lot of the work that we do we really describe ourselves as the social impact organization is about helping organization measure impact over time, and knowing whether their gender equity strategies are working and knowing whether their flexibility strategies are working, by making sure that they are measured against best practice, the voice of an employee, and so on. So we've we set up, I guess, a diagnostic around that. And it begins with the benchmarking that are referred to.

Kylie Speer [00:14:05] Are there any key learnings or insights that you've gleaned from rolling out these programs so far?

Emma Walsh [00:14:11] Yeah, look, I think the first thing that's really encouraging is the willingness of organizations to come forward. So you know, by sort of making a benchmarking tool available, and sort of putting it out there and then seeing who comes forward. We're always heartened as a team to see more and more organizations really signing themselves up to check in around how they're going. I think that's extremely encouraging, particularly smaller organizations that, you know, for many that we might not have seen or heard of those, you know, that size organization, perhaps been focused on this. And I think that the really, you know, overhang and turning point from COVID Is that actually this impacts every organization of every size, and so how do we look to You know, solve for this? And, you know, how do we make sure that, you know, organizations at perhaps, you know, the smaller end of the scale, because Australia really is a small business economy, that small business has what it has needs at its fingertips to be able to implement some of this stuff without feeling like they have to invest a whole ton of money to get some good results. So a lot of what we're trying to do is help organizations with quick wins, how it is that they can put an action plan together over time that they can commit to moving the dial on, and really chunking it down into things that, you know, we think can make a big difference. So yeah, that's generally our approach. 

Kylie Speer [00:15:46] And what about any challenges or pain points you've had to overcome?

Emma Walsh [00:15:51] Yeah, well, look, I think biggest challenge, if I look back over the year as a cultural and social one, and it remains the case, I talked about it earlier that, I guess the tackle of tackling the problem of work life imbalance of, you know, gender inequality, flexibility, you know, work life conflict, they're all big system problems. And there is no way that one initiative that an organization rolls out or invests in is going to deliver, you know, an amazing result in its own right, you know, and so our challenge constantly has been harder, we demonstrate that by looking at getting an organization investing in what it means to be family friendly is about a ripple effect. Because we know that even organization can really pull the lever on being more family friendly, having a family friendly culture. We know the payback is huge. We know there's less turnover, we know that there's less absenteeism, we know that there's more engagement, you know, that we know it's better to attract talent, and the list goes on. And so it's rare to be able to find something that can actually deliver on a number of different brands. And so our effort in trying to get organizations to really understand the return on investment of being a family friendly employer has been hard. And I think one of the things that has prevented that is because often when we think about or the label of family friendly, we can often have a bias around that. And so family friendly is something that's only for women, or mothers and children or for organizations that are a bit soft and not serious about their bottom line, and so on and the list goes on. So you know, how do we bust that myth that being a family friendly employer isn't just a nice thing to do isn't just for a human services organization that employs lots of women. It actually that societal payback in being a family from the organization, as well as the business payback is significant. And so it's been a challenge trying to get that message through to organizations. So and it will continue to be one as we kind of break down those, I guess, gender stereotypes and discrimination, if you like, that, unfortunately, surrounds that even using that term in business family friendly. 

Kylie Speer [00:18:32] And but what's your best advice to other HR practitioners? But when it comes to creating authentic and effective, L&D programs?

Emma Walsh [00:18:41] Yeah, look, I think it's interesting, isn't it? Because this is something that over time that as our team that we're constantly focused on and I guess on the one hand, it's interesting, because most of us in our team have come from an L&D and HR background. So we kind of understand the nature of the beast, but we're constantly looking at well, what's coming down the line? What's just the future of work? Tell us what does the research and evidence tell us about, you know, what people are needing in terms of, you know, how work will be done, what they need from leaders and so on. So, I think often what's underestimated is the voice of the employee and how well that they can actually help be involved in the kind of ongoing future of work design that happens in an organization and I think sometimes, HR practitioners feel a deep sense of responsibility to have to have all the answers to know what they're doing, and to be seen to, you know, have that knowledge to hand and to be presenting that to an organization. Once they've put a whole lot of, you know, blood sweat and tears into it of their own work. And what sometimes missed is this okay? I will actually before I even think about this, you know, how can we tap into where our employees are at now, if we were going to design a new policy, or leadership program, or whatever it might be, that needs to deliver X through our organization. And these people are the beneficiaries of that. How do we get them in a room from the get go and talk to them about what our vision is and what we want to improve? And actually put them in as a customer stakeholder group, from the get go, not as the end recipient, who hasn't had no one, even at this project is going until suddenly there on the communication of Tada, congratulations, you've been selected for a new leadership program, could you please come on it? So I think we need to when designing HR policies and practices, leadership programs, really do a much better job of getting the voice over the employing up and center in the conversation and being part of the design. And I think the future of work, and where we're going is going to demand that actually, we're going to have a big job to do in terms of engaging people to come. And, you know, think about how they really reconnect reignite, because there's still lots of organizations that are trying to get their people back in a new sort of working rhythm post COVID. And sort of, there's organizations that are trying to obviously unwind things that they've put in place for COVID, those that are trying to lead things forward. And they're struggling, because, you know, often unfortunately, the voice of the employee who's going to be the recipient, or beneficiary of what changes they're making isn't up front enough, in the consultation of how do we need this to look going forward? And how can you help us what is it that you need? That would make a big difference?

Kylie Speer [00:21:53] And finally, Emma, what has been the number one game changer for you from a career perspective? And what best advice would you share with emerging HR practitioners hoping to forge a successful career in the industry?

Emma Walsh [00:22:09] Yes, okay, great question. I think probably, for me, I think HR people are in a really unique job in an organization, often we see and hear things that other employees don't. And sometimes those things are not always good. And we have a role to play in that moment around what is the standard that we choose to walk past. And for me, as an HR practitioner, I always felt very responsible for making sure if you like, the code of conduct, in which employees would be dealt with or treated in an organization was sacrosanct. And that, you know, really people, you know, deserve to be dealt with truthfully, and honestly. And, you know, in ways that is, you know, non discriminatory. And unfortunately, some of the behaviors that I saw in organizations, you know, made me want to call that out. So I think, as an HR person, how do you, you're gonna get compromised along the way, and you're gonna see and hear things that you're gonna have to decide, is that something I walked past? Or is that something I call out. And I think, for HR people coming into the profession, or developing in the profession, to really think deeply about your professional standards of what you stand for, and to think about when those things happen, what is going to be your stance, because unfortunately, there still is a lot of workplace harassment, workplace discrimination. And that, you know, it's not necessarily just based on gender, or caring, or, you know, or there's all sorts of manifestations of it. And we are in a really unique role as an HR person to actually either make a difference in that moment and make the situation more positive, or in fact, contribute to the problem. And so I know that that's, that might be confronting, but some people to hear because I know exactly what it's like to sit in a hot seat have an HR day role. It's really difficult at times. So I think really thinking about the role, the important role you play in being able to uphold good workplace standards, and how important it is that you do. Because if it's not the HR department doing it, or the HR representatives in our organization doing it, what message does that send to the rest of the organization? So we're in a unique and privileged role, and we have an opportunity to really, yeah, address those kinds of things when we see them in workplaces than I think we should.

Kylie Speer [00:24:50] Well, thank you so much, once again for your time today and it was wonderful speaking with you.

Emma Walsh [00:24:56] Thank you. Hopefully, that was useful for everyone. On and feel free to reach out to me anyone if you want to know more about what we do and how we might help your workplace.

Kylie Speer [00:25:07] And thank you, of course to our viewers for watching the latest episode of HRD TV. We look forward to seeing you again soon.