On The Horizon – November 2023

Jennifer Liston-Smith’s monthly review reflects on key themes, news and public policy updates in the world of combining work and family for organisations, parents and carers.

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

Performance vs Empathy: do Employers have to Choose?

There appears to be a central tension facing our HR leaders’ community. The expectations of the workforce in general – and Gen Z in particular – regarding work-life balance and support for family life are well established, even if some employers are better at appealing to Gen Z through gamified training than through a genuine understanding of boundaries around work-life fit. Employers are doing more than previously and expectations are still rising: according to talent services firm Morgan McKinley's 2024 Salary Guide, almost 6 in 10 British workers feel unhappy with their benefits packages.

With the labour market still tight due to skills shortages, there is competition over the attractiveness of the employee experience. At the same time, we live in uncertain times and there are cost pressures. Employers are looking for the most effective ways to invest to ensure a real return in productivity, wellbeing and engagement. This dichotomy is the topic of an HR Debate for senior leaders hosted by Bright Horizons with our client Hogan Lovells on 29th November. We will focus on actions in the real world enabling employers to attend to employee experience and expectations as well as cost and productivity pressures.

The topic has been relevant across this year: we explored similar themes several months ago in one of our InsideHR webinars with HRreview. Here Tracey Ismay, People Partner at Bright Horizons client Swiss Re emphasised the importance of a range of approaches to invest in employee wellbeing alongside productivity. Tracey’s list of supports that make an impact included flexibility and hybrid working, support with the cost of living, HR coffee chats where any issues can be raised, and practical support such as Back-Up Care. Swiss Re’s decision a year ago to extend back-up care to the provision of virtual tutoring means this absence management tool has also become a wellbeing support by easing parents’ mental load regarding education and development. Back-up care covering summer holiday clubs also eases the pressure during school holidays, as well as meaning employees are present for work.

In the last month, we further explored the themes that are top of mind for employers in our October / November round of Peer Council meetings for our clients, where small groups of Bright Horizons partners gather over breakfast to share insights on themes that are top of mind as well as gaining insights from our latest research. For the Legal sector, the top-of-mind concerns reported were talent retention; talent attraction; Diversity, Equity & Inclusion; and employee wellbeing. It is worth noting here the excellent contribution made by the Mindful Business Charter team to understanding and addressing mental health in law firms with their recent ‘Raising the Bar’ report. For the Banking & Finance sector, the top spots were occupied by employee wellbeing; employee engagement and experience; hybrid / office-based / remote working; productivity & efficiency; and the employer’s role in childcare.

The Role of Childcare in Career Progression

That concern noted above regarding the employer’s role in childcare is highly topical in light of a new report, Paths to parenthood: Uplifting new mothers at work, from Totaljobs and the Fawcett Society. This shows that ‘the ongoing challenges that come with balancing childcare with work have forced over 249,124 working mothers of children aged 4 or under to leave their employer due to a lack of childcare support’. The report emphasises the economic as well as personal impact of parents feeling trapped in roles below their capability. Findings show over two-fifths (41%) have turned down a promotion or career development opportunity due to concerns it wouldn’t fit in with their childcare arrangements; and 85% of mothers struggle to find jobs that can accommodate their childcare needs during job searches. This fits with Bright Horizons’ own findings in our annual Modern Families Index which consistently shows that around three-quarters of working parents carefully consider their childcare options before accepting a job or promotion, peaking at 83% of 18-34 year olds. Our upcoming webinar with HR Director on 7th December will explore the options for employer-sponsored childcare with Shaun Anderson, Operations Manager from Bright Horizons client first direct.

The Fawcett Society and Totaljobs research involved a survey of 3,000 working parents with children aged four and under along with 500 HR Decision Makers from UK businesses and other data. A key message to employers is that three-quarters (76%) remain just as ambitious after having a child, with 44% saying they are more ambitious. However, 68% of working mothers feel their capabilities and contributions are sometimes undervalued or overlooked in the workplace. 

Over 7 in 10 (72%) of working parents have had to take unpaid leave due to childcare responsibilities, with ‘higher rates for women from non-white backgrounds (79%) and single mothers (73%)’. This is a strong argument for the role of back-up care in inclusion strategies as well as in absence management for the whole workforce.

Flexibility is discussed as a key support in the report. Contrary to popular perception, the findings show working mothers are finding it harder to secure flexible working than working fathers: 43% of working fathers that have requested flexible working have this approved vs 39% of working mothers. Nearly 7 in 10 (69%) of mothers did not receive flexible work arrangements during their transition back to work. 

The report finds that over 8 in 10 (83%) of HR leaders reported improved productivity when the right support is implemented. 70% saw better employee retention and 69% believe having the right policies in place resulted in increased employee attraction.

Jane Lorigan, CEO of Totaljobs has called on employers to:

  • Track the progress of working mothers when they return from maternity leave.
  • Create a clear policy framework.
  • Clearly signpost the support available.

The wider context: all eyes on Al

A review by Oxford academics of the recent UK AI Safety Summit, offers a broadly positive view of this initiative to bring together ‘approximately 150 representatives from across the globe including government leaders and ministers, and industry, academia and civil society leaders’ at Bletchley Park.

In a much-publicised chat between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and tech billionaire Elon Musk, Musk praised London as a destination for AI companies, hailing the Summit’s achievements and backing Sunak’s decision to invite China to the Bletchley Park event: “Having them here is essential. If they’re not participants, it’s pointless.”

Elon Musk expressed views that in an AI-supported future, ‘no job will be needed. You can have a job if you want to have a job for personal satisfaction’ bringing with it questions around ‘finding meaning in life’. He also expressed a clear sense that the existential risks with AI are serious.

A handful of days later, Elon Musk‘s company XAI launched Grok. A new generative AI system, Grok has “real-time access” to information from X (formerly Twitter), which XAI claims gives it a “massive advantage over other models” that have largely relied on older archives of internet data. Grok claims to have wit and a rebellious streak in the style of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. This may or may not sound appealing: perhaps having 42 as the answer to the ‘ultimate question of life, the universe and everything’ might be a soothing option in our complex times? The name Grok itself comes from another cherished cult sci-fi gem: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, about a Martian challenging earth norms, where grok means "to understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with".

Meanwhile, tackling the already-present tech dangers of cybercrime, the US has led a Cybercrime Alliance of 40 countries towards a vow not to pay ransom to cybercriminals under the International Counter Ransomware Initiative (CRI). While it may be one thing for nation states to commit, opinions suggest it will be challenging for employers and insurers to navigate this intention.

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