Q&A: 'We had to combat real and perceived barriers to shared parental leave'

Payal Vasudeva, MD at Accenture Strategy, explains why education and storytelling has been fundamental to encourage one in 10 new dads to take extra leave

Despite its admirable intentions, take-up of shared parental leave (SPL) has reportedly been low. But not all organisations have struggled to encourage staff to take SPL. Just over two years on from its introduction, the managing director at Accenture Strategy, Payal Vasudeva, speaks to People Management about how the company has made it work.

How has Accenture approached the introduction of SPL, and what successes have you seen?

We recognised from the outset that SPL was a key opportunity for workplaces to help drive gender equality and broader societal change. However, we knew that for it to be effective the benefit would need to be compelling. We therefore designed our policy to be generous and progressive, providing mothers, primary adopters, fathers and partners with equal access to up to 32 weeks’ fully paid leave.

We’re encouraged by the fact that around 200 of our employees have taken SPL, including approximately 12 per cent of new fathers, and we expect this number to rise as fathers return to work and can share their positive experiences.

How did you educate employees about what was available to them? What challenges did you face?

Having an attractive offering in place was just the first step. In this instance a comprehensive employee engagement programme was critical. Not only were the nuances of SPL not widely understood, but we recognised that there may be real or perceived barriers to take-up of a benefit that has the potential to challenge cultural expectations around parenting roles.

The programme was driven not only through our HR and inclusion and diversity leaders but also through various employee networks, as well as our UK board. It was important to showcase our most senior leaders as wholehearted supporters of SPL, to encourage employees to embrace the opportunity and to help quell any concerns they might have about taking time out from their careers.

What advice are employees given?

The dedicated programme is designed to help employees make an informed decision about whether SPL is the right thing for them and their family. Experts are available to take employees through a variety of scenarios covering how leave can be taken and the options available to couples.

We also have a microsite, which provides essential information for those considering SPL, and we offer workshops covering childcare, finances and returning to work. These workshops are also attended by maternity leavers, to ensure that everyone can benefit from shared experiences and to help break down any gender barriers, positioning parental leave as an opportunity for all parents.

Is there anything you feel has really made a difference to the success of your SPL programme?

We know that role models are vital to any change, particularly in the inclusion and diversity arena. Storytelling can really change hearts and minds, and we encourage employees who have taken SPL to share their experiences and offer advice to colleagues on the challenges and benefits. Invariably those employees need little encouragement as they tend to return to work hugely energised by their experience and naturally assume the role of SPL ambassador among their teams.

Do you have any advice for organisations that are only just beginning their SPL journey?

Communicate clearly and proactively about SPL – don’t just expect employees to dig out a company policy that may be difficult to digest because of its complexity. It is also useful to proactively engage with prospective parents around SPL; offer workshops and discussion forums and ensure HR teams are trained and readily available to guide employees through the options available.

It is also important to think carefully about who should talk about SPL and how. Communication from senior leaders, beyond the HR team, demonstrates that the organisation is fully committed to SPL, and is not simply following a government mandate, while active encouragement from senior leaders sends a very powerful message of support.

I also encourage organisations to tap into the power of storytelling. SPL is still in its infancy so it’s understandable that people might feel it’s a leap into the unknown. Giving them the opportunity to learn from colleagues who have already taken SPL – whether that’s through talks, blogs or case studies – is vital when it comes to challenging any misperceptions and ultimately driving uptake.