Singapore

FAMILY-friendly practices at the workplace are becoming commonplace, as companies try to encourage new mothers to return to work. Some have even gone above and beyond the mandatory maternity-leave requirements to retain their talents.

One company that made headlines recently is Standard Chartered, which announced on Monday that its Singapore-based employees will soon enjoy 20 weeks of paid maternity leave, up from the standard 16 weeks.

A check by The Business Times turned up several other employers who offer such generous benefits.

Adobe Singapore, for example, has a maternity leave policy of 26 weeks, fully paid.

At Prudential, new mums enjoy 24 weeks' paid maternity leave, eight weeks more than the mandatory amount. Last year, the 800-strong company had 30 of their female staff go on maternity leave.

Sheela Parakkal, executive vice-president and chief human resources (HR) officer at the provider of savings, protection and investment products, said: "When employees see that we care about their well-being, they are likely to be more committed to the company."

Leave aside, companies also offer a dazzling array of flexible work arrangements and back-to-work schemes.

SAP has a four-week, fully-paid-for, phased-integration initiative as a supporting measure, in addition to the 16-week statutory maternity leave.

Under this, female employees put in one work day in their first week back at work, two work days in the second week, three days in the third and four days in the fourth week. From the fifth week, they will be working full-time, at five days a week.

Chetna Singh, head of Total Rewards, SAP Asia-Pacific Japan, said the aim behind this initiative is to give support to female employees after their maternity leave, so they can make the transition back to work over four weeks.

The initiative was voted by employees as one of the most valuable internal roll-outs in this region.

While it seems that companies are pulling all stops to woo new mothers to stay on, these female employees themselves do not always fully utilise their benefits due to concerns that it may stunt their career progression; they also worry about the additional workload their team mates will have to shoulder.

Joanne Chua, account director for South-east Asia and Greater China of Robert Walters Singapore, said: "The capability of women professionals is often questioned once they take maternity leave, or have significant lapses in their career trajectories."

But companies say that when initiatives are explicitly encouraged by leadership, it sets the tone and culture of the organisation.

Nearly all the women leaders at Bain & Company have used not just one, but many of the flexible-work options made available to them over the course of their careers.

Both women and men have a diverse menu of options on how they choose to work; these range from leave of absence, the "10 + 2" (work for 10 months, then take two months off), to even working 60 or 80 per cent of the time for either short periods of time or indefinitely.

With these options in place, all those in the company in South-east Asia who have taken maternity leave have returned to work in the past five years.

Bain partner and head of financial services South-east Asia Seow-Chien Chew said: "Any working parent will know that we need different models at different times in our lives… It's about healthy, sustainable longevity, not short-term retention."

The spotlight may be cast on the working mother, but firms are increasingly recognising that working dads, too, need to play a part in child-rearing.

In Singapore, mindsets have been slow to change. Only about 40 per cent of fathers used their one week of government-paid paternity leave in 2015.

In Bain South-east Asia, however, the majority of new fathers or fathers with young families are taking advantage of the flexible arrangements offered, said Ms Chew. In fact, doing so has become "mainstream".

She added: "There's no stigma at all - in fact, we try our best to celebrate people who build their own paths."

At Facebook, on top of the four months of maternity leave that women enjoy, all new fathers get four months of paid leave to bond with their new baby, which is far more than the mandatory two weeks of statutory paternity leave in Singapore. The leave can be taken at any point in the baby's first year; this policy applies in all Facebook's offices worldwide.

Global digital marketing agency VML is another company with extended paternity leave - four weeks instead of the mandatory two.

Its chief executive Tripti Lochan said that the take-up rate for this is nearly 100 per cent - far higher than Singapore's 40 per cent nationally - as the new dads are "thrilled" to be able to take the time off to be with their wife and newborn.

She said: "We strongly believe that child-rearing should not fall only on the mother, and that both parents have the right and the responsibility to take care of their child. If we want to empower women in the workplace, then we also need to support them by giving men the opportunity to support their partners at home."

Going forward, creating a family-friendly workplace is a work in progress that requires both employers and staff working together for it to succeed. Employers can introduce policies and flexibility, but staff will need to be accountable.

Policies such as additional leave entitlements and flexi-work are a good start, but are only part of an ecosystem that allows all workers to thrive. Other factors like corporate culture and career development matter just as much.

And new parents are not the only ones who need time off: singles may also need to care for elderly parents as well.

As life and work continue to get further integrated, progressive firms which support their staff with their family needs will tend to find that they are rewarded with greater motivation, productivity and loyalty in the long term.

This can only be a win-win situation for all parties concerned.