The need for flexible working practices is often associated exclusively with childcare – however, insurance industry executives say it’s important to recognise the benefits of flexibility in being inclusive, and not only in terms of gender.
Auckland’s recent Women in Insurance Summit discussed the benefits and practical applications of flexible working, and the cultural changes that need to be made to encourage inclusive career progression.
Sarah O’Brien, national claims manager, liability, at QBE, says that flexible working is often pinned as a childcare-related “women’s issue” – a perception which would hugely benefit from change, as the burden of childcare is split much more equally than it used to be. Those without care responsibilities should also be factored into the equation, especially as the insurance sector moves towards greater responsibility when it comes to client and employee wellbeing.
“Flexible working and balancing childcare is often talked about as a women’s issue, but it’s truly a human issue,” O’Brien said.
“Right now we have a baseline kind of flexibility which has often resulted in women taking a hit in their careers. If we want to shift that conversation, we need those flexible working models to be much broader, and we also need an expectation that childcare and elderly care will be the responsibility of both men and women.”
“I personally took a year’s leave with each of my three children, and, after that, my husband and I shared childcare equally,” she continued.
“We are quite privileged in this industry, because we’re in a position to be able to negotiate something like that with our generally quite flexible employers. We have to remember that it’s not so easy for many others.”
O’Brien says QBE has made a commitment to have women in 35% of its leadership roles by 2025, and one of the ways it’s achieving this is by bringing an increased amount of flexibility to everyone in the company. Mothers and fathers in Australia now have 12 weeks of paid leave in addition to the statutory requirements, and this can be taken flexibly – all at once, or by taking a certain amount of days per week.
“We’ve been looking at ways to bring a game changer to the way we care for our staff, and how to take that out of being purely a “women’s issue” and to bring flexibility to everyone,” O’Brien said.
“Ultimately, it’s not just about childcare – it’s about bringing your whole human life to work.”
John Lyon, CEO at Ando Insurance pointed out that everyone has different reasons for potentially needing flexibility in their schedule, and says the onus should be on leaders to firstly model the behaviour they wish to promote, and also to understand the unique needs of each member of the team.
“I’m an immigrant to New Zealand, and approximately 40-50% of the people in our office are those who weren’t born here,” Lyon said.
“That brings about particular challenges for people with families, because they don’t have the wider network of grandparents, aunts and uncles to rely on. When we think about making the workplace stronger and more vibrant, we think about how we gear ourselves up for all elements of the workforce.”
“This thought also occurred to me after the terrible events in Christchurch, which happened at lunchtime on a Friday,” he explained.
“It had never previously crossed my mind that Friday lunchtime isn’t a good time to have meetings, because a part of our employment group would have better things to do during those hours. So there’s a certain amount of unconscious bias, but there’s also a certain amount of ignorance that we have.”
Lyon says that the more leaders can seek to understand the people in their organisations, the more they can be genuinely inclusive in a way that matters. This might involve allowing staff to work different days in a week cycle, or by making it explicit that they don’t expect a response to an email sent on a Sunday – even if it’s from the CEO.
“It’s about setting the expectation as a leader, and also explicitly asking your team about what suits them best in terms of working,” he said.
“But then you also have to make sure that you’re making that arrangement commercial, and making sure that it works for both the employer and the employees. That can be a big challenge.”