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The Right Call | The Working at Home Debate

May 1, 2010

Question: A key employee with a young family wants to either work from home, or have the company provide on-site daycare. How do you respond?

by Fil Fraser

The Case: Gender issues are not going away any time soon. Whether it’s representation in the executive suite, whether it’s about pay equity, child care or a score of other issues, employers can no longer duck the ethical questions of fairness and accommodation which arise. Despite great changes in the past generation, there are still pockets of resistance to gender equity in government and in business. What kind of image does your company project?

The Panel:
Janet Keeping:
a lawyer and president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership
Ken Chapman: a lawyer, a political analyst, a blogger and a principal of Cambridge Strategies Inc.
Dr. Ruth Collins-Nakai: a physician, and a past-president of both the Canadian Medical Association and the Alberta Medical Association; she is an advocate for early childhood development

Janet Keeping: My initial thoughts are that the questions take us to the heart of how you accommodate difference in general, and certainly how you accommodate some of the special needs that parents have – and usually still the responsible parent is the mother. The first thing that occurred to me was that it’s very important how, as the employer or manager, you approach such things. Regardless of what the outcome is going to be, are you going to be able to grant that special request, or are you not? It’s really important that you engage with sincerity. That shows respect for the other person’s concerns.

Ken Chapman: The answer to the questions depends on the nature of the job. In a manufacturing situation, people need to be hands-on, but more and more companies, including universities, are putting daycare facilities in their plants and operations. I think that that will be increasingly standard and normal as we get further down the line of skill shortages as boomers age and become less active in the workplace. Women with small children will have to be accommodated. In a knowledge-based enterprise, where people are using their brains and creativity, there’s no reason why people can’t be working from home. All of the technology is there to do it now. The real question is can someone, usually women, juggle child care, which is not something that can be predicted and neatly time-slotted, and do other intellectually and time-demanding work in a co-ordinated, rational way without household and child care support. Pretty hard to do, but it happens when there are supports like nannies.

Ruth Collins-Nakai: I think that, first, we have to look at the demographics of the workforce and the coming demographics of the workforce in Canada. Over the next decade or two, we’re going to see a contraction of the workforce. There will be fewer workers per retired person. It becomes very important for us to have women participating in the workforce if we’re going to maintain or improve productivity.

There are some interesting statistics in terms of what is available to employers. The most recent Vanier Institute of the Family report says that 70% of Canadian households have both parents working. That number has been increasing steadily since the 1970s. That means that there will be a large proportion of children, especially those under the age of six, who will require care. If you combine that with the information that we have about child development and the huge impact that early child learning and development has on future educability, productivity, criminality and future health and well-being, there is a huge need for us to be able to ensure that children are looked after appropriately.

Keeping: If you take the question about whether the company can provide on-site daycare, that could be, depending upon the size of the company, a really onerous undertaking. That’s a lot to ask of an ordinary employer, but you still have to engage with it in a respectful way. It depends on a lot of factors – can you afford it – are there enough staff members to make it worthwhile – would it be disruptive to some of the other benefits that you are able to grant employees? It could fundamentally alter the relationship between employer and employee.

It could be a fabulous solution for the working parent, but it depends upon the resources you have and on your well-considered priorities.

Chapman: A fundamental change in the workplace has already happened. We’re working and competing globally. We have productivity issues. We want to save time and money in terms of travel and develop even more social cohesion within families. Attitudes have changed. Home is where people used to send their workers to recharge their batteries so they could come back and do their jobs. Now I think that demands for a better work-life balance, especially from younger generations, is something they’re just insisting on. And quite frankly, I think they’re right.

to May’s Right Call Audio Collection, now.

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