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Business leaders share the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of employer-supported childcare at roundtable


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From left: Fairway Holdings Group CEO Imal Fonseka, Brandix Lanka – Holding Company General Manager, Group Capability Nilangani De Silva, F. J. & G. de Saram Precedent Partner Ayomi Aluwihare, Hemas Holdings Executive Director/CEO Steven Enderby, MAS Kreeda MAS Active Trading Chief Executive Officer Sarinda Unamboowe, London Stock Exchange Group Sri Lanka Chief Financial Officer Fadhil Jiffry, Selyn Business Development Director Selyna Peiris, Standard Chartered CEO-designate Bingumal Thewarathanthri, and IFC Sri Lanka Women in Work Program Manager Carmen Niethammer (Moderator)

By Fathima Riznaz Hafi

IFC in collaboration with UNICEF had recently launched ‘Tackling childcare: The business case of employer-supported childcare in Sri Lanka,’ a report highlighting the positive effects of employers supporting the childcare needs of their employees. 

When childcare needs are supported, the obstacles to a healthy work-life balance are removed, resulting in talent retention, greater productivity and a boost in profits, according to the report, which draws on 10 case studies of leading companies across the country, who have successfully implemented childcare support for their staff.

The launch of the report was followed by a CEO Roundtable whereby heads of these companies shared insights gained from their experience during their companies’ childcare journey. The emphasis was on ‘why’ employer-supported childcare is a necessity and ‘how’ employers can successfully implement it. 

The roundtable, moderated by IFC Sri Lanka Women in Work Program Manager Carmen Niethammer, comprised: Fairway Holdings Ltd. Group CEO Imal Fonseka, Brandix Lanka – Holding Company General Manager, Group Capability Nilangani De Silva, F. J. & G. de Saram Precedent Partner Ayomi Aluwihare, Hemas Holdings PLC Executive Director/CEO Steven Enderby, MAS Kreeda MAS Active Trading Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Sarinda Unamboowe, London Stock Exchange Group Sri Lanka Chief Financial Officer Fadhil Jiffry, Selyn Business Development Director Selyna Peiris, and Standard Chartered PLC CEO-designate Bingumal Thewarathanthri as members of the panel.

 

It is not about the dollars and cents

Carmen started off the discussion, inviting the panel to share their companies’ experiences in terms of the business benefits of employer-supported childcare. 

“As CFO I don’t say this much but it is not about the dollars and cents, to be honest; it’s about the long-term value that this creates for a sustainable organisation which values inclusivity, for whichever background and whichever gender,” Fadhil opined.

“We have 80% return rates from maternity leave after starting the crèche facility – and that is the value that gets created – that is knowledge and experience that gets retained within the organisation, as opposed to having to go outside and create that process all over again.

“As a group, as London Stock Exchange, we also have a commitment to achieve a 40% women in employment target by 2020; we are at about 32% globally at the moment; slightly lower in Sri Lanka at about 22%, which I think is okay from an IT-industry perspective,” he added. 

 

Game changer

MAS Kreeda in Jordan after only four months, was able to reduce absenteeism by 9%. “What did you experience here in Sri Lanka in terms of your business results?” asked Carmen.

Sarinda shared, “Right now we have only about nine crèches in Sri Lanka, of which six are run by our companies and the rest are run in shared facilities. In terms of a direct impact, I don’t think we have really measured as such; because there are not more than 30-40 kids in each crèche. So for the actual impact, there’s still a huge way to go but if you talk to the mothers – they’ve been game changers for them. There’s a lot more that we have to do. We have a total of about 450-500 kids in crèches at MAS right now but we have 70,000 women working for us. So you see where the opportunity lies.”

Running some quick statistics, he said: “There is an average labour turnover of 6% in the apparel industry in a month; that adds a huge amount of training cost to the business. Of that 6% that leaves, in a month, about 30-40%, depending on which area you look at, leaves as a result of a lack of childcare. If you do a pure mathematical calculation, you see the benefits (of supporting the women).”

 

Amazing sense of comfort

The most recent crèche (opened in 2018) is at Fairway and it has received positive testimonies from parents on retention. “We have the traditional extension of maternity leave and early departure for feeding, etc. but there was a definite need beyond that, because even if they had some form of childcare at home, the parents were never really comfortable – leaving the child and coming to work – it’s always a nagging thought at the back of the mind. Once we located the crèche office and enabled the parents also to be on-site, where the children are, that provided an amazing sense of comfort,” Imal noted. 

“Having said that, I must add that insight came from engagement with our female colleagues; in terms of approach, it’s how we enhance the whole employee engagement experience in the company.”

 

Impact on people retention

Standard Chartered has provided childcare facilities since 2008 and that has had a big impact on people retention. Bingumal says childcare support was introduced slowly as a people strategy, not as a business proposition.

“Work-life balance is a big part of Standard Chartered’s people strategy; tackling childcare comes as a sub-strategy of that. 10 years ago we started the crèche in Sri Lanka. It’s had a huge impact from a people retention perspective; maternity returns are 100%. We don’t see people leaving due to childcare-related issues. That’s the main impact. 

“I had my personal experience of running sales organisations – I’ve seen mums coming after maternity leave and getting into a business role straight away with things running smoothly because they are very comfortable leaving their kids to a good caregiver – educated, qualified caregiver, run by the organisation,” he said. 

 

Bringing younger women into the industry 

As a much smaller company than the others on the panel, and being in the handloom industry, the business case for Selyn is different. The average age of a handloom weaver is 45-50; it’s an ageing industry. Selyn’s aim is to bring younger women also into the industry. The challenge initially was when they become mothers, they leave the industry. Selyn therefore set up day-cares in their weaving centres and that worked for a while but later they faced another challenge when the children started school. 

“We’ve managed to recruit about eight to 10 women out of the 40 weavers in a village. However the challenge that we saw later was when the child turned five, there was a dropout again. So this year we thought of a way to keep these younger women in our industry, by bringing in a kind of kids’ club – where the kids can go to school and then come back to be with their mother at the workplace. The mother is given flexible time to go and drop her child in school, pick them up, etc.; that is the kind of thinking we have had in our villages,” said Selyna. “Also in our headquarters, we have about 200 people who work from home – they drop the child at school, come to the factory, and get the things that they can sew at home.

 

Trained staff is precious

While employer-supported childcare facilities have been hard to come by, F. J. & G. de Saram’s childcare facility has been in place for 18 years and it was started by Ayomi who was raising her one-and-a-half year old child at the time. “The case for me as a mother was what Imal touched on – I had a mother-in-law at home but I wanted to be involved in the care of my young child –that’s what drove my colleague and me to speak to an almost all-male partnership and persuade them that a childcare facility would be good,” said Ayomi. 

“A very good trained lawyer (three to five years), is very precious and in five years it’s the time when a woman is also looking at having children and building a family – we found that the crèche service that we offered has been a huge plus and a huge case for retention of trained, experienced lawyers,” she said. 

 

Zero attrition

Brandix’s childcare journey started in 2011 when two of its executives returned after maternity leave only to resign shortly after because of the pressures they had in taking care of the infants. “This forced us to look into the crèche facility and we didn’t have a facility of our own, so we rented an apartment and hired two nannies to take care of the infants; the demand grew from five to seven. Now we have our own crèche facility at Brandix Essentials; we have 30 kids in the crèche which has a potential of having 60 kids on-site,” shared Nilangani.

The kind of facilities and the education programs provided at the crèche help immensely with the development of the child, and the initiative has been a huge strength for the business, she asserted. “From a business sense, in terms of the retention, when you look at our statistics for the last three years, all mums who went on maternity leave returned – we have zero attrition.

“This supports our diversity and inclusive goal as well; currently we are at 27% overall female representation; our target is to go for 30% by 2020; and now on our board we have a 33% female representation,” she added. 

 

When the normal system breaks down

“For Hemas the journey started relatively recently, in 2017. Just as everyone else on the panel has seen, we are wrestling with one of our biggest problems – attracting and retaining quality people,” said Steven.

In a bid to address the issue, looking at it from a more gendered perspective, they sent a panel of their women leaders to identify the reasons women were leaving the organisation. The panel came back with a list of reasons and on the top of that list was the childcare issue. 

“It was interesting – it was slightly more nuanced than we thought because for many women who were taking that decision to leave us, it actually wasn’t so much childcare provisions on an everyday basis, because many of them already had that – as a relative, family or extended family had already made provisions in the area where they lived. They said the disaster for them was when their normal system breaks down, and that element of their regular childcare is no longer available – when the childcare provider is either ill or unavailable, the parents just have to take the day off with one reason or another that just becomes bigger and bigger,” he noted.

“So we’ve established a ‘Kids’ Zone’ and it’s for kids from ages three to 13; they can come to our office, we’ve provided a space for them and we’ve enabled the parents to supervise the child, whether it be the father or the mother. It’s early days for us; we are still experimenting with that, trying to learn.”

 

The ‘how’

Having established the ‘why’ of employer-supported childcare, the discussion moved on to ‘how’ they can go about it. For the benefit of companies who do not have childcare facilities and are eager to initiate it, the panel shared advice on how they could set up their own childcare support systems. 

 

Just do it

Bingumal says, “First of all you have to believe in it –it’s a need and you should not do it for business purposes. You have to be brave and take the decision. When you talk about investment, there’s always this conversation around: ‘Is it the right investment?’ and ‘What is the ROE?’ It’s not an ROE conversation – just do it. 

“I’m sure some companies can divest and invest in these things if you have the time and energy – if you have the right focus, you can find the money within the system.”

 

Ask your staff what they want

Selyna says, “First ask your staff what they want. I planned to replicate what we were doing in the handloom village, in my headquarters in Kurunegala but found that most people who were working there, including the factory workers, didn’t want a crèche facility as such; they wanted the ability to bring their kids to work after school (the older kids). So it’s very important that we continue to have a discussion with the people that we are working with and people who are working in our community, because otherwise we are going to be replicating these models.”

She also mentioned that there should be holistic maternity schemes, explaining that women go through pregnancy and postpartum stress issues, requiring different kinds of assistance at different stages of motherhood. 

“Childcare starts from the womb. Going through my first trimester I was extremely depressed and I realised that there may be women who are leaving jobs during that first period of pregnancy. There was a girl who after 12 years of working for us, left when she got pregnant, because she couldn’t deal with the pregnancy and maybe she felt if she can’t deal with that at the start, she can’t deal with things after. We need a holistic solution to support them during pregnancy and after pregnancy. There might not be a business solution for all of this but that’s where the heart and bravery and leadership come in because we really need to do it.”

 

There’s no right model

Fadhil says there’s no right model and that the model can evolve over time. “LSEG Tech started with a different model but evolved into a model where we are partnered with a third party now. We provide the infrastructure in Malabe because some of those areas don’t have infrastructure. In Colombo, we don’t have space to provide an infrastructure so we use the partner’s facilities but give a significant subsidy to the employees. So there are different models that may be applicable to the different industries and the location. There’s no one-size-fits-all.”

 

Take the first step, start small

Sarinda says there’s no single solution and his suggestion is to start small. “You don’t have to start with 200 children, you can start with one or two and just build it up as and when needed; but – take that first step – that commitment – that you’re going to do it. “It’s not something that you can do to tick the box; this is serious,” he added. 

 

Learn from others and replicate

Imal’s advice is to learn from the companies who have successfully implemented childcare systems. “Learn from the others. We visited most of them who are here – we learnt what they did and then replicated it. There’s nothing embarrassing about having to learn from someone else. Learn from people, figure out what they’re doing well, and then replicate it,” he said. 

 

Work with a reputable partner

Nilangani suggests working with a reputable partner who provides a safe and loving environment for the kids. “Working with a partner who has that experience, and qualified teachers and nannies was important for us. We have our own outfit in Wathupitiwala. It’s not our own location but we work with a local partner and we have about 20 kids going to that particular day-care. For us it is important to look at the safety aspect of it and the love and care that is given to the children,” she said. 

 

Raising awareness

“The biggest challenge is to persuade corporates that it is a need and to persuade a board that it is important,” said Ayomi. She recalled when they started their childcare facility and some of their senior lawyers were bringing their children in to the facility, the reaction they received showed that there was a stigma attached to childcare.

“I do believe that boards don’t think that it’s important enough; so on the ‘how’, work like this (raising awareness) is important. On actual set-up, once you have the mindset, it’s really easy to do.”

 

Flexibility

“For us flexible working hours made a big difference to women’s lives and gave them a feeling of a lot more control over how they engaged in the workplace,” said Steven.

“In some situations, like in a factory environment, it’s is a tougher thing to do but in many of the jobs of today, it’s easy; and to me it’s one of those no-brainers.”

 

Fathers and childcare support

The discussion then shifted to the father’s role in the story. Childcare is typically associated with mothers and therefore provided primarily for them, without much acknowledgement of the fathers’ struggle. Carmen asked the panel about their companies’ childcare provisions for fathers.

Bingumal promptly stated that there is no discrimination from offering it at his organisation and that there has been a huge, positive uptake. “Though we only talk about women, we also have men (fathers) struggling with childcare. Sometimes the mother is away or is equally busy – multiple problems – so men take care of some of these challenges. We’ve seen many fathers using these childcare facilities. We also have paternal leave, etc., in the organisation. The childcare facility is well-structured and the fathers are really benefiting and we’ve got a lot of feedback from fathers as well.”

Fadhil shared, “We have more than 20% of our intake from the father; predominantly also because if you take the population, 75% are male anyway, so there is quite a bit of intake from our facility.”

Imal and Selyna however had different experiences. “We have opened up to fathers but haven’t had any takers,” said Imal. “As an organisation we want to encourage fathers. Personally, as a father, I would have really enjoyed it if I could have brought my son to work when he was young.”

Selyna said, “Out of Colombo, in Kurunegala where we work, childcare is still seen very much as the role of a mother; so I think we won’t have any takers if we were to extend it to men. That’s something we have to change, through constant dialogue because it’s also the right of the father to care for his child.”

 

Q&A session

At the end of the panel discussion, the floor was opened to the audience for a Q&A session. A pertinent question posed was about the option to work from home. “There are organisations that give employees the opportunity to work from home. Have you tried this option in supporting childcare?” a member of the audience from Chrysalis asked. 

Ayomi replied, “We have a lawyer who has a child with learning difficulty, so she works from home and we structured a policy for her; and since then we’ve been able to use that policy for others. It’s something you start with a broad mindset, and you tailor-make as time goes. At the firm, because we are small we can look at each case, each professional’s needs.”

Sarinda said, “Our colleagues in the central offices give flexi hours and work-from-home options; with technology the way it is these days, they don’t have to be in one single location. Unfortunately in our factories we can’t do that because it’s a completely different job profile but it hasn’t become a problem because we provide differentiated services to different levels in the organisation.”

“We are asking for flexi hours all the time and they can work from home. We are very open for it, to tackle childcare,” added Imal.

A member from John Keells shared, “One question we’ve been grappling with is: How do we treat all employees alike? We are in different sectors, different businesses and different rhythms. We do have flexi hours and work-from-home policy and have stretched the rules after maternity leave but we can’t only provide childcare facilities in certain areas of work and not in others.”

Imal replied, “You will never get it perfect – we also have the same challenge – we are a diverse company and face challenges like how to manage our colleagues in the aviation sector, or the services sector, and how to provide to everyone. You should just decide to do it and take it from there. You can’t plan for everything; just start and get it done.”

Another member from the audience asked, “How do you ensure the quality of the crèches?”

Nilangani replied, “We have an audit that we run regularly and also have the parents engaged through a committee that looks at matters related to the day-care centre. We have continuous education and awareness on running the place first in a manner that emphasises the safety and love aspect.”

 

Take-home advice

A valuable take-home advice from the discussion came from Ayomi: “There is no ‘one’ solution – it’s not only the crèche – it’s many other things: You can have a crèche or childcare facility in your workplace, and support that with flexi hours – you allow the mother to go at 2 p.m. every day, pick up her child and bring her to the crèche, you can allow work-from-home, etc. – it’s something that evolves. You have to have a broad outlook.”

The CEO Roundtable concluded on a positive note, with an accumulation of invaluable insights and solutions, generously shared by the panel in the hope that their work will be an inspiration for others to follow.

Pic by Shehan Gunasekara 


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