On The Horizon – February 2024

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership, Bright Horizons

A sharper focus on the ROI of DEI?

On 22nd February, we’ll be exploring – in a webinar with our friends at HRreview – what works to support gender equity at work.

At first glance, current news items on workplace trends suggest a slightly more cautious stance by employers when it comes to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Wellbeing programmes. But is it, rather, an increasing clarity of focus? Many employers rightly wore their wellbeing programmes on their sleeve during, and immediately after, the covid pandemic, when employee experience was everything. Our current times see a return to demonstrating Return on Investment.

The Financial Times carried a helpful opinion piece last month, based on US businesses, predicting that the drivers for DEI programmes will be less about pursuing targets (such as % of women or members of minoritised communities in senior roles) and more about measuring overall impact of programmes on staff retention or engagement.

Those of us sitting in the UK need to be aware of the US context. There are restrictions on affirmative action for our US colleagues since the 2023 Students for Fair Admissions case reinterpreting the Supreme Court’s decision in Grutter v Bollinger. US programme designers now need to take care not to be seen to be promoting specific groups, since this could be read as bias. Hence the pull back from quotas.

Even with that in mind, the FT’s Global Business Columnist and Associate Editor, Rana Foroohar, predicted that employers will not necessarily scale back programmes but measure differently. An effective programme will aways work on different levels: promoting under-represented groups while also boosting retention, loyalty and even productivity overall. For example, new research from Harvard Business School Professor Joseph B. Fuller makes a clear link between programmes for caregivers and improved staff retention.

In Bright Horizons’ client employee survey of 2023, two-thirds said a workplace nursery made them more able to pursue or accept a higher position with their employer – which would support any targets for better representation of parents. Meanwhile – ticking the retention and engagement boxes – 89% were more likely to stay with their employer and 83% were more likely to recommend their employer to others. 91% also agreed it had a positive impact on productivity and makes it easier to do their job.

So a sharpening stance on demonstrating ROI is actually a welcome opportunity to highlight those programmes – offering practical support – which are most critical to the workforce of today and the future.

Wellbeing – What works?

27th January was Parental Mental Health Day: Workplace Wellbeing Professional kindly interviewed me for a podcast to mark this.

In terms of what works to support wellbeing overall, there was an interesting contrast in two articles on the same day on 11th January. HR Magazine reported – in a slightly sensationalised way – evidence from the University of Oxford suggesting that individual wellbeing programmes alone are not as effective as wider organisational measures. It was put more calmly in the New Scientist. But this is surely not new news: it has long been argued that we need to tackle stress at (organisational) source rather than simply offering mindfulness classes to cope with it. The Mindful Business Charter (Bright Horizons is a signatory) is a great example of the sensible ways employers are pulling together to manage pressures through better scheduling, delegation and meeting planning rather than only teaching ways of handling imposed pressures.

The contrasting article, in Employee Benefits, suggested that some hybrid workers, missing work due to the anxiety they experience on coming in to the workplace, say they’d be helped by more art in offices; and mental health programmes. These look rather like individual level responses.

Ideally helping workers find balance and wellbeing works top down and bottom up. Employers need to reduce pressures at source; and mindfulness classes for individuals are also evidence-based. It is impossible to imagine employers could remove all the sources of stress that workers experience. After all, most of us would admit that several sources of our own stress originate in our own heads, when we worry too much about what others think, for example.

So, as well as a renewed vigour for rooting out organisational stressors, spurred by the Oxford research, it makes sense to pay attention to what makes individuals tick too. Our own coaches, who support working parents and carers in our clients’ workforces to fulfil satisfying careers alongside family life, constantly recognise the need to help the individual identify and find ways of influencing pressures at source, while also working at a cognitive-behavioural level to help them adapt their mindset in relation to that which can’t be changed.

A Trend toward the Office

Despite the coming day 1 right to request flexible working, it seems flexibility could be returning to favouring time flex over location flex. There’s a growing trend towards employers encouraging employees back to central workplaces. The media have been awash with reports of strengthening return to office policies since last Autumn as well as ongoing predictions that hybrid will continue to play a role in how knowledge workers work. As ever, there’s a new trend to go with this: coffee-badging – swiping in, in order to be seen, staying for a coffee then retreating to get some head-down work done at home.

Korn Ferry’s The Week in Leadership last week examined a new study from the University of Pittsburgh suggesting that ‘return to office mandates don’t necessarily change a firm’s profitability’. That said, the authors point to wide evidence that being together in a central workplace is the most effective way to onboard new individuals or teams, kick off a project, and strengthen team cohesion.

In a similar vein, the Financial Conduct Authority succeeded in defending an employment tribunal claim by a senior manager who complained her request to work fully from home had been declined. The tribunal found that the FCA had followed due process, used one of the 8 business reasons permitted to turn down a flexible working application, and that it was reasonable to say that being fully remote could have a ‘negative effect on quality’, through not attending in-person training, not being present to coach direct reports in person and similar activities.

For those employers wondering what works best to attract workers to offices: top of Raconteur’s list for attracting colleagues back to the office was ‘Doggy daycare’. Did you know that Bright Horizons Back-Up Care now includes pet care?

The Need for Childcare continues as a Media Theme

As described in January’s On The Horizon, the extension to funded childcare places in England is coming closer. 15 hours of funded early education and care are set to be offered to most working parents of 2-year-olds in term time from April and a similar 15 hours for babies from 9 months in September (fitting alongside the existing allowance for 3-4-year-olds). Next year, in September 2025, the intention is to fund 30 hours of early education in term time for eligible working parents of children from age 9 months to 5 years.

The media have been working up quite a frenzy about the potential for parents to be let down due to delays in providers being able to access funding from local authorities, the high costs for nurseries meaning some will not be able to offer the places, and the urgent need for parents to apply for eligibility codes with a system experiencing some glitches.

inews linked the challenges of finding affordable, accessible, high quality childcare with the pressing need to recruit and retain nursing staff in the UK’s hospitals. With the recent Academy for Medical Sciences findings that children under five years are experiencing a decline in health, the role of quality early education settings in supporting good nutrition could be added to the list of the ways childcare can support the nation. Employers continue to explore the role they can play in supporting staff access to childcare, whether through an employer-sponsored nursery onsite such as those at the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust or a partnership with a nearby nursery.