Man Surrounded By Toys On The Phone

Watch out for the family friendly workplace façade

Why workplaces struggle to deliver on their family-friendly promises

Written by Professor Gary Martin FAIM
4 minute read
Man Surrounded By Toys On The Phone

Part-time roles, flexible work arrangements including four-day working weeks and opportunities to work remotely. Add to that reduced stress, no more overnight travel away from your loved ones, in-house child care facilities and generous leave provisions.

These are just some of the big attractions on offer as a so-called jobs boom takes hold and bosses attempt to lure top talent with the promise of a “family friend workplace”.

While such benefits often have parents and caregivers salivating at the thought of being able to nibble away at their paying day job while gulping down their family responsibilities, what you see or hear on offer is not always what you get.

Far too often, a purportedly family friendly workplace ends up delivering no more than a family friendly façade.

While family friendly perks may be promoted, employers are generally under no obligation to make true on those promises. It can leave many of us struggling to balance work duties with home responsibilities – and sometimes while working from home.

Yet there is a very logical connection between the well-being of employees at work and at home and their workplace productivity.

Provide the necessary support to allow parents to not only fulfil their work lives but pursue a career and a business will thrive. Withdraw such help and workplace productivity will evaporate.

It begs the question why some workplaces still focus so little on helping employees attend to their family responsibilities when – invariably – this lack of attention negatively impacts the bottom line.

Most parents and caregivers at some point experience conflict between work and family duties. Sometimes the search for a more family friendly workplace even pushes parents and caregivers to change jobs.

But those moving to what they consider a more family friendly environment are often confronted with a rude shock from something as simple as a staffing change (think: boss) transforming a relatively flexible workplace to one more rigid than a steel pylon.

Ask anyone who has juggled work with family responsibilities and stories of their challenging experiences pour forth.

For example, the four-day working week spills over into a fifth day – every week. 

A mother is regularly asked to work back late into the night in the office or at home to meet project deadlines. 

A part-time worker, despite being the best applicant for a more senior role, is passed over for promotion. 

A father working remotely because of his family commitments is not considered by his colleagues to be “one of the team”.

The odd request to leave work early to deal with an unwell child or to attend a parent-teacher meeting is met with disdain.

The worker who negotiates a permanent shift to work from home (WFH) to look after his elderly parents is suddenly expected to be on duty 24/7. And there are more examples.

While employers should not preference parents over other workers, too often they end up doing the exact opposite.

There are many reasons why workplaces struggle with delivering on their promises to be family friendly.

Sure, they put in place a full range of policies that pave the way for family friendly work practices. But obstacles invariably emerge.

For a start, talking about boundaries during work hours remains a largely taboo topic – and one that reared its ugly head again during the WFH phenomenon at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

And more often than not speaking up about work-family conflict is driven underground in the workplace, with some parents and caregivers worried that openness will limit their career opportunities.

The family friendliness of a workplace also usually depends on who is running it at any given time. If the boss does not have any boundaries when it comes to their own work life, there is a very good chance they also do not care about protecting the limits of others.

Many bosses, too, have reinforced a culture that remote work means reduced commitment – making many working outside the office feel like second-class citizens.

To make matters worse, others make it near impossible for those working part-time to progress in their careers by failing to consider them for senior roles or promotions and by denying them training.

There is also still a need for employers to rethink how they design jobs. We need jobs that do not require parents and caregivers to work unreasonable hours and sacrifice family for a career.

And those who do get their boss’ approval to WFH or from another remote location often end up the victim of a mentality that sees a flexible “anywhere, anytime” style of working rapidly become an “all the time, everywhere” mandate.

We are a long way from achieving the family friendly workplaces that many parents and caregivers need and desire.

Only when we challenge the prevailing and misguided view that the only way to get ahead professionally is to work full time, be in the office at all times and be prepared to work into the night will these supposedly family friendly workplaces make the transition from being flimsy to functional.