Until recently, even offering the hushed suggestion that an advertising agency might offer flexible work would have had you laughed out of the building (but not before 6pm, of course).
But, in the past 24 months, a quiet change has been gestating in Adland, as Australian agencies finally cotton-on to the benefits of quality parental leave and flexible work arrangements (benefits that our client-side contemporaries have been enjoying for years).
In a recent investigation by Adnews, 13 of the nation’s top media and ad companies showcased parental leave policies that far exceeded the government-mandated 18 weeks at minimum wage.
My agency, happily, is among them. That’s why this agency copywriter is sitting in Dorrington park on a Monday morning, writing this article while fending off keyboard attacks from a 3-year-old who wants to play candy crush (which for some reason was pre-loaded on my laptop — cheers Microsoft!)
Incongruously, these changes have come against a backdrop of tightening margins and disruptive technology has destabilised whole media landscape. So, of all times, why has the tipping point towards family-friendly policy come now?
To get some answers, I sat down with Kellie Shaffier, People and Talent Manager at GrowthOps. Unsurprisingly, talent and retention were the first two words to cross her lips.
“There are so many talented people that we want to keep on board” Kellie says. By creating a workplace that accommodates new mums to return to work on a schedule that works for their family, GrowthOps’ plans to keep employees loyal as they shift through different life stages.
It’s well established that diversity gives workplaces a substantial creativity boost.“Promoting diversity is one of our highest priorities when it comes to culture” she adds.
On top of retention, a cohort of happier, less-stressed staff can also work wonders for output. “A good work life balance enhances productivity” Kellie says. “It makes staff happier and works for the business, in what they give back”. This is especially relevant in the face of recent research findings that mothers of two children who work full-time experience around 40% more stress than workers without children.
This all rings true for me. As a four-day-a-week-er, I’ve never felt happier or more productive at work — or in the interactions I share with my two under three. I enjoy my conversations with a toddler about his favourite types of dirt as much as conversations with adults who value my professional creative expertise, but the magic is striking a beautiful balance between the two.
I’m lucky to have an employer that gave me the opportunity to find that balance.
But, I know from past experience that policy doesn’t always meet reality. The right to request flexible work is enshrined in fair work legislation, but the responsibility of employers to offer it is discretionary. This leaves 1 in 2 Australian mothers to face discrimination on returning to the workplace and 18% to experience redundancy while on parental leave.
I’ve seen this side too. When I tried to return to previously-negotiated flexible work at another agency, I was told my business case wasn’t valid as ‘the business has changed’ — and was promptly shown the door.
Which leads me to ask, is there anything businesses can do to make sure their new flexible work policy becomes part of culture, not just words on a page?
Kellie believes that educating leaders on the value of flexible work is critical. So is making sure a flexible ethos starts at the top “We are big on constantly educating our senior leaders on the importance of down-time, family time and culture”.
At GrowthOps, this even applies to employees in always-on client facing roles.
“There are many group account directors who work on a flexible schedule. The possibility is based on individual needs. This freedom means that our people can strive in all areas of their life while still being able to step away and switch off”.
However, ‘stepping away’ isn’t a zero-sum game. Part-time work, by definition, comes with disadvantages — like reduced pay, fewer promotions and lower lifetime superannuation. As long as women continue to bear the uneven brunt of the primary caregiver role, the increased number of women in flexible work will continue to be a key source of the gender pay gap.
A critical part of ironing out these inequalities is to work towards extending equal opportunity to “step away and switch off” to dads as well. By developing future policies that do away with idea of dads as ‘secondary’ parents, we can normalise caregiving, encourage men to invest in their own parental leave and watch the disadvantages dissipate.
Kellie agrees, but acknowledges achieving this next cultural shift will take time. Still, from where I’m sitting (in the park while my 1-year-old climbs the wrong way up a slide and a 3-year-old wastes my candy crush credits on random swipes), Adland’s gradual transition towards flexible work has already made a big difference to me.