If it is true that every cloud has a silver lining, then employers have often had to look quite hard to find one in much of the new employee-friendly legislation brought in over the past few years.
Generally, when a new law is enacted to protect or benefit employees, there is less room to manoeuvre within working practices, and things can become financially onerous for the company.
That goes some way to explain the mixed reaction to the Work and Families Act, which came into force on 1 October and entitles all new mothers whose children are born after 1 April 2007 to take a year off work and enjoy nine months of statutory maternity pay. Women with plans to have children were delighted employers less so.
However, the silver lining for employers in this legislation is the provision that mums on maternity leave are entitled to 10 ‘keeping-in-touch days’ throughout the nine months.
Some employers are sceptical that this is a good thing at all, and we have heard concerns that, if the employee was to come in for one day every six weeks, for example, these days would cause disruption in the office as there is the potential for these visits to end up being nothing more than a chance for colleagues to catch up on the office gossip and show off pictures of the new arrival.
There are fears, too, that with a temporary worker already in place to cover the work of the absent employee, the company will simply be paying two people to do one job. To an extent, this is true, as before this legislation, if an employee came into work for one day, they would lose that week’s salary.
But a short return can offer real benefit to the company. For example, the end of a project with which the employee has been intimately involved may require her attendance, or a training course could take place during the maternity leave that might be important to the employee’s role.
There is no obligation on the employee to attend work at any time during maternity leave, so it is possible that the keeping-in-touch days will be of most benefit to high-earning women who actively want to maintain their professional profile and development during their period of absence.
It is less likely that the lower paid will make use of their 10 days’ entitlement, especially if childcare costs have to be met. This may be so even if their employer could really use their help during certain times, such as during an annual audit.
A lot can change in a year. New colleagues are likely to have been appointed, and client relationships and workplace politics, and even the general workplace climate, can undergo significant change.
Can it benefit the business at all, then, to have a member of the team completely off the radar for 12 months?
By maintaining a minimal, but regular, presence during maternity leave – again bearing in mind there is no obligation for the employee to do so – staff can stay abreast of important client and workplace issues.
This provision in the legislation can make things easier for both the organisation and the employee. It will allow a smoother reintroduction to the team, without employees having to hit the ground running after a long period of absence.
Clearly issues will arise, but with good management this part of the legislation could be just be what employers are looking for.
Keeping in touch: pros and cons
- Important projects can benefit from employees with valued skills.
- Training and development can continue during maternity leave.
- Staff can stay on top of client and workplace issues.
- ‘Keeping-in-touch days’ could end up as ‘catching-up-on-gossip days’.
- A small period of time might provide little tangible business benefit.
- Overlapping work with temporary staff could be frustrating.