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Many years ago, I was lucky enough to be employment equity officer with a large, progressive government department. Back then, one of the issues we worked with was how to make workplaces “family friendly”. On talking with many managers in the past week, it seems that issue of how to get the job done while supporting workers with family responsibilities is still an issue.

In my view, a manager’s responsibility is to actively assist employees in managing their work and family needs, helping to find solutions that are fair and equitable to everyone involved, while still delivering work outcomes.

Sometimes family responsibility issues in a workplace are hidden issues. Some managers think their employees do not have childcare or family needs because they do not talk about it at work.

The problem is that many people feel they have to perform at a high standard both in the workplace and at home, and that mentioning home difficulties in the workplace would appear unprofessional. As a result, they never mention their problem to their managers. That does not mean problems do not exist and are not affecting the organisation.

Making Your Workplace Family Friendly: Actions managers can take

  • Acknowledging the importance of employees’ family commitments.
  • Knowing and supporting the human resource policies that allow for flexible work practices.
  • Welcoming discussions of work and family problems.
  • Keeping up to date on issues that affect employees with family responsibilities.
  • Ensuring meetings are not held early in the morning or late in the evening to allow parents to mesh open and closing times of care provision.
  • Recognising that men as well as women have care responsibilities.
  • Being aware that excessively long hours adversely affect all employees, not just those with family responsibilities.
  • Encouraging employees to work with you to find a mutually appropriate solution to work and family matters.
  • Being aware that childcare is not the only type of care that employees perform.
  •  Being aware that employees with family responsibilities are more productive in a work environment with supportive supervisors and co-workers.
  • Understanding families come from a variety of cultural backgrounds and celebrate different family or religious holidays, but do not have the benefit of an officially recognised holiday such as Christmas.
  • Arranging staff on extended leave to receive copies of relevant information. Generally the person relieving in that role should be given the responsibility for ensuring the staff member on leave receives all relevant information about their job including vacancy information, staff newsletters and invitations to social functions.
  • Providing support, reassurance and appropriate re-induction for staff returning to work from extended leave.
  • For employees who need to maintain contact with their family when they are at work, being supportive of periodic contacts by telephone.
  • In a workplace where employees are not able to be contacted for extended periods, agreeing on a contact number that can be used in an emergency by family members or care providers.
  • Reviewing training practices. Are programs conducted during normal working hours and close to where employees normally attend work? Is it possible for part-time staff to attend full day training or would it be more appropriate to consider half day training?
  • Travelling often causes difficulties for people with family responsibilities. Try to avoid residential training, although if not possible, review the assistance (both physical and financial) that those employees will need to ensure that they are able to gain maximum benefit from the program. Where employees incur additional family care costs, you may want to reimburse these costs.

Barriers to Change

There are a number of barriers to overcome to make a workplace “family friendly”. Managers often do not know how to manage all this flexibility, so take the easy option, non-approval.  Inadequate training of managers in how to manage flexibility is a barrier to change.

Even where policies are family friendly, unless managers actually support them, they will not be used.  Many staff will be afraid that to use the policies will derail their careers, so this barrier needs to be openly discussed.

Often work/family policies are seen as policies only for women and the women who use them are generally seen as having their loyalty split between their families and the organisation and are therefore “suspect’. Policies need to be broad enough to cover families of all types and the culture of suspicion needs to be tackled head on.

Where policies only support families with young children, resentment is often triggered amongst other staff.  Strategies must be inclusive of all employees with different care and study responsibilities.

Another barrier is the value of “face time” – the longer you are at your desk, the higher you are valued.  This contrasts with valuing the contribution, no matter how or where it was arrived at.

The bottom line is the support of the manager is crucial in assisting employees with family responsibilities to reduce stress levels as they attempt to balance often conflicting responsibilities. A climate of honesty and ‘give and take’ is the one that needs to be cultivated within a workplace for this to work.

There is no one “right way” to make a workplace family friendly, just like there is no one ideal family, so solutions need to be tailored to suit the businesses and the people within the business.

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