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Podcast: Debs Ingham of How Do You Do It? discusses how businesses can work smarter

In this everywoman podcast, we talk to Debs Ingham about how attitudes to family life can enable businesses to work smarter and more inclusively.

“Becoming a mum to two children hasn’t diminished how much I enjoy and value my career but it meant rethinking what worked best for me and my family in combining work and home life.” So says EMEA Director of How Do You Do It? Debs Ingham, articulating an experience common to most parents and carers.

When we ask the inevitable “How do you do it?!” of those who are meeting these dual roles, should it be to individuals, frantically spinning their plates? Or should it be to forward-thinking organisations, focused on supporting their employees to align their work and home goals?

How Do You Do It? delivers in-house programmes for businesses on the curve of this crucial attitude shift, helping them to support their talent and solve issues including female attraction and retention, flexible working strategies and on and off-ramping.

 

Transcript

Anna:               Hello and welcome to the everywoman Podcast. I'm Anna, editor of everywoman, and every month from January 2018, we'll be bringing you the stories, insights, and opinions of inspiring women in business, on a wide range of topics. We'll be asking the questions you want the answers to, and doubtless prompting some more in the process. Today, we'll be talking about how attitudes towards modern family life can empower businesses to work smarter. I will be doing that with EMEA Director of How Do You Do it?, Debs Ingham. 

Anna:               Welcome to the studio, Debs.

Debs:               Hi. 

Anna:               So, how do you do it? This is obviously the question that we all ask of those juggling work and family life. Perhaps we ask it more of women, I don't know. We'll discuss this later on in the podcast, but the question I want to start off with is, "Are we asking the wrong people?" Should we be asking how businesses can better support their employees, instead?

Debs:               Well, I think that's a really good place to start. What's interesting is one of the reasons why we are called How Do You Do It? is very much about recognising that that emphasis on the word you, has a really broad way of interpretation. So, for example, there is the individuals, how are you as the working parenting making this happen, making it work? Equally, how are you as a manager supporting your working parents? A new person, how are you as the manager able to make that work? Then, finally, as an organisation. So it's really thinking about those three levels. I think you're right, that the question doesn't need to be purely directed at the individual, at the working parent level. It does need to be as all-encompassing as the business also being involved. 

Anna:               Absolutely. Do you feel that traditionally it has, because the onus has been on ... I mean, I keep returning to it being women, and we can discuss this. I know that you do programmes for men and women, so this is really important to move forward. The onus has often been on us having to make it all work, which, obviously, then has an impact on stress, on attrition. Why is it so passionate ... Why are you so personally passionate about supporting working parents? What was your impetus for getting How Do You Do It to where it is now?

Debs:               Well, interestingly ... So, the business was founded 12 years ago, and I've been working across EMEA for the last five years. The founder of the business is a woman called Virginia Herlihy who is based in Australia. She always says that you design the programme that you wish you'd had, and that very much resonates with myself and also the co-director I work with, Clair Hodgson, here in the UK, in that at the time when we started our family. my husband and I, we were living abroad. We'd gone abroad with his job, so we had made that choice. 

Debs:               When we returned I had, I think, a seven-month-old and was looking about. I always knew very strongly I wanted to return to work, but actually, my priorities have changed in that the option of a full-time role and juggling that with a new baby was not the work pattern I was looking for anymore. Interestingly, I suppose when I started the conversation with Virginia about the business coming to the UK and across EMEA, it resonated very fully, and even though I now have two children who are well immersed in Primary School, so that much older, it's amazing how it doesn't matter where you are on the parenting journey, that sort of constantly looking at how you're going to make work fit with family. It's just a moving, it's not that you've got it fast, you've got it sorted, you are constantly having to reevaluate the choices you're making.

Anna:               I mean, do you offer different training and different programmes for different stages of parenthood, because you make an interesting point. I mean, having a new ... come back to work perhaps when your child is 10 months is very different to having a child that is 5 or 6 and at school and, again, a teenager. Are there different priorities that have to be combined, and how do you sort of separate that out?

Debs:               Interesting that we've always worked with parents who are any stage of the parenting journey, and I think one of the things we talk particularly about certain managers is the fact that it's very easy as an organisation, and at that manager sort of level, to think that support is all about that return after you first become a working parent, and whether that's maybe number one, number two, and number three. 

Debs:               I've had the conversation, we've talked about it takedown, but actually I think talking to the vast range of parents we've now supported, people need different levels of support from their organisations at very different points in that journey. I've definitely got examples where you've got a working parent who, for them ... Actually, those early years are quite straightforward. They've got extended childcare with us through your nursery hours, your own nanny, or you've got parents involved, and so on, and, actually, for them, when they want to have more flexibility, more support from the organisation, it's maybe actually when they hit the transition to school. It might be when they transition into secondary school, it might be exams, it might be that more emotional sort of resilience that's required during the teenage years.

Anna:               -years, yeah.

Debs:               Absolutely. So, for that family they all need flexibility, at maybe a different time to the parent who actually finds leaving their child in whatever form of childcare they've got in those early years, they find that, actually, the more testing time for them. So, it all varies hugely from family to family. 

Anna:               But, as you say, it's an ongoing process.

Debs:               Absolutely.

Anna:               Once you become a parent, you're a parent.

Debs:               Exactly. Not just a puppy for Christmas, it's like that.

Anna:               There you go. 

Debs:               One of the other things, thinking about that sort of the variety of support required when you have a group, which you've got participants whose children are at different ages that can be hugely helpful or supportive for that wider group. Some people it's about taking the mystic about what's to come. It's also about having somebody being able to say, "That will change." You know, "There is light at the end of the tunnel," sort of that reassurance there. Equally, you might get somebody who, because they're not in that situation, can actually be slightly more objective when it comes to thinking about solutions, strategies, and ideas, as well, that they can offer.

Anna:               And asking questions, perhaps, they hadn't thought about. Ultimately it's about inclusion. It's not about sort of putting parents up in that feeling that they sometimes have that they're the ones being watched because they've got to leave at 3 or-

Debs:               Definitely. So often parents say that what they are looking for is not to be treated as a special case. They don't want to stand out with special treatment, and that really resonates with the managers, as well, because I think one of the big challenges that managers will often articulate is the sense of fairness, the wanting to be able to treat everybody that they're managing with what works best for them as an individual and not feel that the people who aren't parents, for example, don't have other caring responsibilities, feel that they're getting a raw deal, because of that. The parent doesn't want that either in that team dynamic. 

Anna:               No. 

Debs:               I think that's a really important point. 

Anna:               They just want it to work, don't they?

Debs:               Absolutely.

Anna:               That's the key. This leads me to my next question. You've, obviously, talked about flexibility, which I think is an absolute key thing. What for you are the fundamental things organisations need to do to sort of successfully embrace this more agile, and inclusive, working experience?

Debs:               Well, sort of building on that last point, that concept of introducing, whether it's agile working, flexible working, whatever terminology you want to use, by looking at that and addressing that as something that is open to all employees. You are taking away that sort of special treatment idea. 

Anna:               Stigma.

Debs:               Absolutely. It's about everybody being able to look at what they need in their life, whether it's a sporting pursuit they have. They might be involved in volunteering. They may just want a day to do something completely different that's not work-related. It not being all about caring responsibilities is hugely powerful. That also helps the culture shift, because it isn't about special treatment for one particular group. It's about the inclusion piece. 

Anna:               It's about that wider work/life integration, which everybody is so hot on now.

Debs:               Yeah, absolutely.

Anna:               We all want work and life, don't we, that works?

Debs:               I mean, interestingly, I was with a group of working mums just last week, and they were talking about this, how the introduction and the uptake of agile working in their organisation has worked really well, and is really becoming prevalent. However, what they were noting is that the graduate population who are coming in now have very different demands, and requests, around work and how they see that fitting into their life, and the other aspirations they have. 

Debs:               I think, historically, those of us who've been in the workplace for some time maybe thought, "Oh, yes, once they arrive in the workplace then they'll realise what it's all about." The reality is they're not shifting, and they are in a large group that are all not shifting in that mentality in terms of what they want. The working mums I was with were saying, "Actually, do you know what maybe we should be taking a leaf out of their book," because, you know, they are challenging the hours that they're expected to work and the fact that, you know, these are people who don't have, in the main, the caring responsibilities we associate with parents. They're much younger, much earlier in their career, and it's interesting that they're not, it seems, as motivated by the things traditionally that people made an assumption around progression, or money, for example ...

Anna:               Absolutely. The cost of anything. Actually, the critical mass of millennials could end up being the working parent's best friend.

Debs:               Well, indeed, and they could end up being that sort of catalyst from the bottom that helps move this forward. I mean, in terms of going back to your point about what organisations need to be doing, you know, we would always say that you absolutely need that buy-in at the top level, you really do, because this is ultimately it's about shifting a culture typically.

Debs:               If you think about it's all very well to put training in place, to put various structures and policies in place. They are absolutely critical and they are parts of the jigsaw that you need, but unless there is that attitude shift then you're on a quest to nothing, it just becomes an initiative, which will live for a certain length of time and then die off. Yeah, absolutely

Anna:               Well, I had written this question, which is a good time to ask. Is it attitude first then, and then new structures, and trainings, and systems?

Debs:               Well, I expect from our perspective we see them very much having to work in tandem, I think. It's very difficult to start moving those attitudes forward if you haven't got those policies in place, so an organisation really needs to be looking at this in the full picture. You can't go in and start tinkering with one part of it without the other bits being there to support it. 

Debs:               From our perspective, attitude's probably got to be ... The discussion has got to be there at the top level that they see is what commercially they have recognised absolutely as the way forward. If they are interested in ensuring that they are absolutely at the top of their game around retention, around progression, for both males and females, and around engagement, also around things like attraction and, you know, how that looks in the wider industry. Once they have bought into the fact that it's a bit of a no-brainer to be looking at things like agile working affects the working, to get them ahead in the market, then that's when you need to make sure that you've got all those other pieces of the jigsaw in place, so you can start cascading that down. 

Debs:               That's sort of interesting with the point about the millennials. If you're going to get that push from the bottom, as well, maybe that is the catalyst we need. Who knows.

Anna:               Maybe, and an unexpected one, as well.

Debs:               Yeah, absolutely.

Anna:               I don't think anyone really saw that coming.

Debs:               Oh, and it hasn't been contrived. That's what's so interesting, that is a generation who've come through with a very different view on what they expect and, actually, that ultimately could be the thing that's needed. Maybe you've got that sandwich effect with current. You've got it as though working parents in around that middle management piece at the moment.

Anna:               Yeah. Also, one presumes, perhaps, a lot of parents in leadership roles now, so maybe that, again, is a critical mass that's helping to change things. We're not assuming everybody in leadership roles has children, but a lot of them probably do, because of the age span really. That's quite interesting. 

Anna:               We sort of asked/answered this question, but I just wanted to say, you know, if people aren't having those discussions, and if the business isn't involving these types of attitudes, can we actually say that they are behind the curve and less productive as a result?

Debs:               Well, I think ... Already we know that different studies have been coming out recently and I've talked about how productivity and turnover can be directly impacted if you look at this. Just a couple of lovely examples have come out in the media recently where you've got a design agency, another marketing agency, so similar industry, where they've actually moved to a four-day week. So, for all staff moved to a four-day week. I think with both of them it's Friday they've opted to be their non-work day. They're getting paid the same. They haven't reduced their salaries to a four-day salary, and they've also ... One of them has also embraced term-time working as a model that they can extend along to both mothers and fathers. Both of them have reported their turnover has gone up significantly, as has their productivity. One of them, specifically, said it had peaked at 38%, but it's levelling off around 30% increase in productivity.  They don't see themselves ever going back to a five-day week. What a lovely employer. 

Anna:               I mean, again, it seems a bit of a no-brainer, doesn't it? Flock to an employer that paid you the same for a four-day week, and you would feel motivated. You touched on working mothers and fathers, and I do want to speak about this, because, as we said, a lot of times, historically, the onus has been on working mothers. I read something, quite interestingly, a while back about shared parental leave and the effect that it might have in terms of being able to close the gender pay gap, and change attitudes, because even though we've made great strides, I think there's still that slight sense that if a child is ill, or if there's an emergency, the woman defaults to being the one who picks up the slack. 

Debs:               Yeah, absolutely.

Anna:               You run programmes of both. What are the difference in the content and aims, and why? 

Debs:               What is quite interesting is I would say that the gap is narrowing in terms of the differences, and part of that, I think, is because men's role and their desire to be more actively involved in families is increasing. However, I think where there's the rub with our current work environment is we still very much, our jobs are essentially designed around our traditional family roles, and working Monday through Friday, I want to say 9:00 to 5:00, but I think very few people have those actually. Anyway, 9:00-5:00 going on, but that sort of traditional format of work doesn't actually fit now with what families are looking for, particularly when both parents are looking to actively be involved at home. In terms of thinking about some of the differences, I've just started working with a group of fathers in a large organisation who've all taken shared parental leave, and there's plenty of press to say the uptake hasn't been as much as we would have hoped, but this group, they've all taken way beyond that two weeks statutory paternity leave, and one of the real benefits that they articulate at the end of that very first session, because we work with them for five sessions, was the relief in the room of being able to talk very openly about the challenges they face in their shared work context, actually what it's like ... You know, some of the challenges at home, and they've all got partners who also have returned to work. 

Debs:               They made very conscious decisions as a couple that they would share the parental leave, because both of them had, whether it's career aspirations or recognised what they got out of work and wanted that balance between the two. I think they're all very honest about there are very few forums where they feel they can have those sorts of conversations. It's not something they talk about with their mates in the pub, and it's a different experience as a man taking shared parental leave from something that traditionally has been done by the woman.

Anna:               Two questions for that. Why do you think the uptake isn't great?

Debs:               Great, yeah. It's interesting. I think part of it is where the policy got to. Now, from an HR perspective, and that's not my area of expertise, my understanding is that it's not the simplest piece of legislation to orchestrate, and it's had differing impact in different industries, so in some industries they have very much embraced it, and they've made sure that the policies they have around paternity and shared parental leave match the policies they have for maternity.

Debs:               In other organisations, they've maybe had to look at reducing their maternity policy in order to be able to allow the same thing for their fathers, so it's very varied in terms of how it's implemented. I think the other thing that has meant the uptake maybe ... There are two things. It's partly a bit about knowledge and understanding. When we run a father's group for dads who've only taken ... I say only, ... but have taken statutory of the two weeks. When we talk about shared parental leave in terms of, "Was it something you were aware of?" I would still say at least 50% in the room will not have heard of it, even though they are right in the target audience, as you can imagine. So, there's a bit about an awareness piece. 

Debs:               I think the other bit that ... Where we look at countries where it's been more successful, so often in Scandinavia, for example, there are dedicated periods of parental leave, which is a sort of use it or lose it for fathers, so the father has to take it. He can't give it to the mother to take, for example, and that's something that the government here decided not to do, so the current policy essentially gives the women 50 weeks. She has to take the first two, but then following 50 weeks it's her choice, ultimately, to give some of that up to her partner. 

Anna:               Right. Oh, okay.

Debs:               I think the thing that would potentially move the dial in terms of the uptake if we look at countries where it has been successful, it's more around saying a section of that is only for the father.

Anna:               Is ring-fenced for the father, and actually perhaps that would have an impact, as well, I imagine, on attitudes in business, because ...

Debs:               Absolutely.

Anna:               ... there's still that sense, I would imagine, in some businesses that maybe they shouldn't take that much leave. You almost need it mandated to move it forward to become inclusive and then become Scandinavian... I think. 

Anna:               In terms of the programmes that you run for women, what would you say that the key things that the women in business that you speak to come forward with, and what do they get out of the programmes?

Debs:               I think one of the big things is that many of the organisations we're working with are high performing organisations; therefore, by virtue of that you have individuals who have invariably succeeded at most things they've done in the past. They are used to certainly having a reputation of things going well, doing a great job, and so on, in their organisation. 

Debs:               Suddenly, some of them will find themselves in a situation where actually this is difficult, and they maybe aren't feeling as comfortable or as confident, particularly after a period of time out of the workplace. So, if they've taken six to 12 months out, being fully immersed in bringing up a small baby, coming back into the workplace, often they talk about their confidence, but also their competence around their job, having been hit during that time.

Anna:               Interesting.

Debs:               Actually, coming back into a workplace where you have a great reputation, a lot of them would see as career limiting to say, "Do you know what, I'm struggling with this." Getting them into a safe environment in a group with other working mothers who will openly talk about where they found things a challenge, but equally where they've had some successes, where things are working well, or not so well, actually that can take a huge pressure off thinking, "This is just me."

Debs:               Often some of the women talk about it's a bit like coming into work when you're first back after a maternity leave like a swan, so you're trying to project this beautiful, everything up and it's all under control, whereas underneath the surface your peddling madly. Just knowing that there are other people who you have that same perception of, "Oh, my goodness, they've all got it under control," actually being very open about, "Do you know what, we're gone through a really tough time at the moment because of X, Y, and Z," and that whole normalising of the experience is hugely valuable. 

Anna:               Yes, absolutely. Reducing the isolation is one of the ways, I think, we also change attitudes, because people feel more that they have people on their side and they can speak up. 

Anna:               I just wanted to ask one final question, really. How much further have we got to go? What still needs to change and how will we get there? I say it's one final question, that's a million questions, but-

Debs:               There's always work to do. If I, first of all, sort of think about different industries that we work with, they are in very different places. You will get some industry sectors who are much further along the journey around embracing our parenting for working, which has had very positive impact on working parents versus other cultures and industries which are much more traditional still, and really are maybe exploring the idea of this, but aren't very intensively actually embracing it. 

Debs:               Recently there's been a new working families index report that's come out for 2018, and I thought one of the interesting proposals they had was saying that the UK really needs a flexible working revolution, and really recognising that so often flexible working is a very individual arrangement. It's that one conversation between an individual and their manager, rather than being something that's widely embraced, and all too frequently the arrangements are for mothers.

Debs:               In many cultures in certain industries you will still see the perception is that flexible working is to support a working mother, not to support everybody. So, there is absolutely things to be done. Those industries who are embracing this, and have seen there are great advantages around productivity and turnover, the commercial reasons, as well as what it's like to work in that kind of organisation in terms of how that helps their attraction, their retention. We work with Deloitte very closely. 

Anna:               I was going to say, and you reduced their post-maternal attrition from 19.4% to 8.3%.

Debs:               Exactly.   

Debs:               A strong commercial win, exactly. Those percentages were even higher when they sort of cut the data by seniority. The cost that it is to replace somebody who is a senior manager, or director, you are actually saving dividends. We know now from our initial data, we are having our children later. By virtue of that, that means for an organisation we are more valuable, whether that's in terms of how much it costs to replace us, but almost how much has been invested in us, the quality of the relationships we hold, whether that's externally with clients, or internally. Again, the savings that can be made means there are huge commercial drivers around this, as well as this being the right thing to do. 

Anna:               Fantastic. Thank you, Debs. This has been absolutely fascinating chat, and thank you all for joining us, as well, on this everywoman Podcast, and we look forward to continuing the conversation with you next time. Don't forget in the meantime, there's a wealth of information, interest, and further talking points on the everywomanNetwork, and app if you want to access on the move. So, until we meet again, have a great day and keep on living your best life.