The changing face of work & family life: An interview with the CEOs of Talking Talent and Working Families

Chris Parke, Global CEO, Talking Talent and Jane van Zyl, Chief Executive, Working Families

We kept wishing the world of work would change. And it has. There has been a huge shift in the way we work since Covid-19 – for the better. Yet so many questions remain unanswered and out of our control. For working parents and carers in particular, the state of work and life continue to be in constant flux.

To mark National Work Life Week, Talking Talent CEO Chris Parke and Working Families CEO Jane van Zyl share their thoughts on the changing shape of work and family, and why it’s in everyone’s interest to offer more supportive workplace cultures for working families.

Tell us a bit about you?

Chris: I’m a dad to three young girls, entrepreneur and co-founder of Talking Talent and a passionate advocate for inclusive working environments. I enjoy applying practical coaching and organisational psychology approaches to complex problems as it relates to addressing under-represented talent, building inclusive environments and finding coaching led solutions to complex career/life transitions. Hence, my interest in supporting working parents and carers.

Jane: With a South African father and an English mother, I grew up in apartheid South Africa, which has influenced everything about me—particularly my commitment to helping create equal opportunities for all. I started working in the charity sector in 2005 and have had a passionate relationship with the sector. Sometimes I’m in love with it; sometimes I feel taken advantage of; mostly I’m in awe of my colleagues and feel privileged to be allowed a window into the lives of other people. I laugh easily—mostly at myself. I love the mountains, skiing (although I came to it late, so not an expert), and sappily, my partner. Oh, and wine.

On a personal level, how have you managed the juggle between career and family life?

Chris: I co-founded Talking Talent with my wife Jo. So, whilst it’s been a huge amount of hard work to build out our vision of a global inclusion practice, Jo and I feel like we have been able to define when we do that work. That’s been invaluable as we have been juggling our different identities as business leaders, parents, friends etc. It’s also meant we have been able to offer our three daughters some great adventures as we have piggy backed off business trips to open and run our overseas offices with family time out.

Jane: My juggle has been with managing elder care, first for my father when I was 24 and my boss allowed me to spend an hour every day, plus travel, at the hospital without any issues. At the time, I didn’t realise this was unusual. My mother had Alzheimer’s and my parents-in-law were both ill in their last few years, which also taught me a great deal about the challenges of balancing work and caring for loved ones. I’ve also had the joy of supporting my brood of godchildren – helping their parents to manage school emergencies, holidays, and after school clubs. It takes a village.

The Talking Talent, Working Families partnership – why?

Chris: I had been a changemaker at WF for over a decade. I cannot state how important the work that Working Families curates is. Not least in these incredibly testing times for working parents and carers. The legal support, their expertise in flexible working, the research and public voice to lobby government for change.  The charity also shares very similar values to Talking Talent around integrity, legacy and doing the right thing. It was a very easy decision!

Jane: Inclusion is one of our key values as a charity, and Talking Talent has unrivalled experience fostering inclusive workplaces. Their experience coaching parents and carers through transitions is especially valuable in the context of Covid-19. We’re really looking forward to collaborating with Talking Talent to create more flexible-family-friendly workplaces across the UK.

In your eyes, how have the needs of working parents and carers changed in the last decade?

Chris: In many ways they haven’t. There is still one almighty juggling act; as it relates to time, finances, the ability to balance modern careers with modern families in all of their shapes and sizes. Thanks to the superb work of Working Families and others the modern workplace is now more attuned to the needs of working parents and carers. Flexible working practices and the policies supporting that community have come a very long way. Those at the periphery, single parents, same sex couples, those in extreme poverty or working for less progressive workplaces still need the support of organisations like Working Families. Now, perhaps, more than ever.

Jane: One of the key things we’ve seen in our research is that fathers are playing an increasingly active role in parenting. Employers need to embrace this, doing away with the assumption that women will always be the primary carer. We are increasingly seeing employers creating gender-neutral parental policies, which is very encouraging. However, there’s still a long way to go to reach true gender equality in the workplace.

How have they changed during Covid-19?

Chris: The pressure that working parents and carers have been under over the last 9 months has been unprecedented. Talking Talent coaches support over 1,000 working parents each month. We have never seen a time in the last 15 years where they have been under such intense pressure. Access to childcare facilities or schooling has been limited. Anxiety around job security and work pressures have both escalated, leaving many working parents feeling intense pressure, anxiety and guilt. The impact on gender diversity efforts could be profound unless we continue to support working parents in a meaningful way through effective coaching, development and communities. We are at risk of losing large swathes of critical talent if not. 

Jane: Parents and carers - and employers alike - have realised that flexibility is available in many more jobs than they ever realised before. We surveyed over 1,000 parents and carers over the summer and found that 97% of respondents wanted their workplaces to retain flexible working post-Covid-19. And nearly half of respondents were planning on making concrete changes to their working patterns post-lockdown. I think parents and carers really understand that there’s no going back to business as usual, and employers will need to embrace flexibility to stay competitive.

What specific help and support are working parents and carers asking for?

Chris: Coaching and development around how best to navigate the transition to parenthood during Covid. Identifying ways to conduct meaningful work, holding down job security and maintaining careers during a very challenging time. Juggling work and parenting responsibilities and the inevitable trade-offs. Dual career status and how and who leads? Identifying a career strategy to cope in the interim; and lifting your head to remind yourself of the “what next”. Avoiding burnout. Dealing with anxiety, stress and depression. Managing sick or dependant relatives during lockdown.

Jane: Parents and carers want autonomy. They want to be able to flex their hours in a way that works for themselves and their families. They want to be judged by their output, not by the number of hours they spend sitting at their laptop. One silver lining of the pandemic is that it’s made parenting, caring, and family life a more prominent fixture in the workplace. We’ve seen children popping up on video calls or interrupting presentations—and with that comes a greater understanding from employers of the demands that people with caring responsibilities face. At the end of the day, understanding is a big part of the parental support equation.

What are the best ways employers can best support them at the moment?

Chris: Providing coaching and development programmes to support the transition to parenthood and those with caring responsibilities. Crucially, mirroring that support with managers of parents and carers so that they can better support those individuals and their careers. Being clear on how best to build parent friendly organisations where working parents and carers feel like their careers can thrive without making huge compromises to their roles outside of work.

Jane: As I mentioned in my last answer, we really want to see employers measure performance against output on agreed deliverables—not by the amount of time someone spends at a desk, or by the outdated notion of the 9-5 workday. We also hope more and more employers will start to recruit as many jobs as possible with flexible options, thinking carefully through job design and how different roles may be able to be done in different ways.

How do you see their needs changing in the next 5 years?

Chris: I hope that we won’t need to be talking about creating flexible working policies and practices post Covid!! If the crisis has proved anything it’s about the need to focus on what work you produce, the quality of your outputs, and not where you produce it.

I’m honestly more focused on the next 5 months and ensuring our clients are able to best support their working parents and carers through the next stages of the pandemic. I fear a lot of the hard work we have been involved in over the past decade may otherwise get lost. It’s on a knife edge right now. It will require focus and intention if we aren’t going to negatively impact on a generation of parents and carers, particularly those who are most vulnerable, women bearing the brunt of that given how many take on the primary carer roles.

Jane: With the shift to remote working and flexible hours that we’ve seen during the pandemic, there’s a danger that parents and carers may be finding it challenging to separate work from home. Our 2020 Modern Families Index shows that nearly half of parents think that the ability to work from anywhere has increased their workload. In the next 5 years, mental health must be a priority for employers.

I also hope we see a labour market with far more high-quality, part-time and flexible jobs. This would help parents—particularly mothers, who are more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work than fathers—progress in work. And in turn, it would have a positive effect on gender equality in the workplace. Covid-19 could really be a catalyst for this, but we need employers and the Government to get on board.

How can organisations benefit from being more supportive employers?

Chris: The impact of loss of talent is directly felt on the bottom line. The programmes we have run have measurably saved our clients tens of millions of pounds, not to mention retained key talent, increased engagement levels, improved career momentum and fundamentally shifted workplace cultures. With prospective employees increasingly mindful of which organisations will best support them during key career-life transitions, having an effective support programme for working parents and carers can also contribute strongly to becoming and remaining an employer brand of choice.

Jane: Organisations that prioritise flexible and family-friendly cultures see more engagement, improved productivity, and better retention of staff. When it comes to recruitment, they will also open themselves up to a more diverse workforce. It’s truly a win-win.