When staff at the Commonwealth Bank’s Sydney headquarters were quizzed about their childcare needs in 2012, two things became clear. They wanted access to quality childcare and they wanted it close to their work.
Responses to the cross-sectional survey of 1200 staff reflected the chronic shortage of childcare places in the CBD, says Donna Hollier, the bank’s executive manager of employee benefits.
It also posed an opportunity to increase staff engagement.
“We specifically asked what a more conveniently located centre, on site, would do to their engagement score and whether they would be more satisfied with the Commonwealth Bank as a place to work,” Hollier says. “The result was that their engagement score would lift from 88 to 95 per cent. It was a big lift.”
Using the survey results, Hollier and her colleagues submitted a proposal to bank management. The concept was approved, and in January this year a 79-place, custom-built childcare centre, called Honeybee, opened to the children of staff members, supplementing the bank’s existing network of childcare facilities.
With more than half of all Australian mothers returning to the workforce when their youngest child turns two, the demand for childcare is growing. Onsite childcare remains the holy grail of workplace entitlements, but it has only been within the reach of employees working for some large organisations.
Now even small- and medium-size companies are exploring how they can help their employees, says Prue Warrilow of Families At Work (FAW). Despite a lack of tax incentives for smaller companies to offer onsite childcare, a greater number are using information and resource services such as FAW to help employees find affordable care.
Changes to Australian society in recent decades mean that mothers with young children are an increasingly important part of the workforce and one that employers are working to retain.
The number of women participating in the workforce has grown from 44 per cent in the late 1970s to about 59 per cent today, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The trend has seen the need for childcare services rise steeply. About 740,000 children under the age of six currently attend either long day care or family day care centres, and the figure is expected to increase.
With the availability of childcare often a determining factor in the decision to return to work, many employers are developing formal relationships with childcare centre operators to ensure places for staff. Sometimes the relationship involves negotiating with an operator to reserve places in an existing centre. At other times a new purpose-built facility is constructed.
In the public sector, the government is setting an example, with the Department of Defence alone operating a network of 22 childcare centres across the country. Such arrangements are also common at universities and hospitals.
Tom Hardwick, CEO of national childcare centre operator Guardian Early Learning, says there’s a clear trend in the business world as well.
“We’ll be opening six centres this year that will have some element of company sponsorship to them, and 10 more next year,” he says. “We’re finding that financial services companies are particularly focused on the issue, and we’re starting to see stronger interest from professional services firms and energy companies.”
The benefits to employers are clear cut, he says. “In an economy where competition for talent is intense, it pays to invest in programs that encourage your existing staff back to work after maternity leave and that attract new staff to your business.”
Telecommunications company Optus is another business that invested in onsite childcare facilities. When it consolidated several of its sites into a central campus at Macquarie Park in 2007, it built a facility with space for about 100 children.
The centre gives parents peace of mind and allows them to increase the time they spend with their children, while also bringing benefits to the company, says Vaughan Paul, vice-president for HR.
“It creates loyalty, improves retention and lifts engagement levels, ultimately lifting productivity. It’s good for the kids, the parents and the employer.”
Operating the centre does bring additional HR responsibilities, such as dealing with occasional changes in centre management, says Paul. “You have to continue to invest in it and make sure the facilities are good for the kids. It’s not just something you set up and forget.”
He is a firm believer that businesses should be playing a bigger role in helping staff source childcare. “If you think about some of the challenges we face in terms of diversity and talent, there’s no doubt childcare is an issue across the community. The government is doing what it can to put more spaces in, councils are trying to get behind it, [but] I don’t know that anyone’s cracked it.
“My view is that corporates have to get involved. They can’t just rely on governments to factor this in. If you have scale and space, absolutely you should be considering this as an opportunity to provide an extra benefit.”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the August 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Mining the mother lode’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.