Flexible work or funky furniture? What really makes you stay with the one employer

When I visited the Sydney Google office a year ago, I was suitably impressed. The free lunch room, games room, musical instruments, meeting pods and Pyrmont views certainly made for a nice offce atmosphere. And the fact you could acceptably get around barefoot, or at least in shorts and thongs, made the place feel like walking around in an awesome version of your own home.

But what I was struck by was the idea that you didn't need to leave. With food and entertainment provided, many of the engineers would work long into the evening, preferring to take a few hours out to play video games instead of finishing up at a regular time and going home.

I thought this was what made Google a "happy" place to work, the third best employer in Australia according to BRW and, internationally, the best company to work for according to Fortune magazine (for the fourth year in a row). But I also thought this made it a slightly manipulative place to work – in that you wouldn't want to go home. Why bother, if you didn't have somewhere better to be?

For so many women, a great looking office is meaningless if parental leave, job sharing and flexible working options are limited. No amount of in-office perks can take away from the desire to get back home to other priorities.

Thankfully, Google came to this conclusion too – especially as it's attrition rate of new mums was skyrocketing, and twice the rate of other employees.

In 2007, a new decree from head office was passed down to its America-based employees: five months paid maternity leave at full pay and benefits with the ability to split the time where needed (eg, to get back to work and take more time off later on). All "new parents" were given seven weeks leave. Previously, Google was offering 12 weeks paid time off – not all that bad to start with, especially back in 2007.

According to Slate this week, the generous maternity leave policy has been positve. The attrition rate for new mums dropped 50% and "happiness" (which Google actually measures via extensive employee surveys) went up. The savings on recruitment expenses made the new policy cost effective.

Locally, the package is a little less generous, with Google mums paid 18 weeks at full pay, and partners taking four weeks, according to data supplied to BRW's Great Place to Work survey. It came in behind the SAS Institute (paying 22 weeks) as the best place to work while "planning a family".

Paid maternity leave is proving to be a competitive edge for companies looking to attain and retain the best and brightest. Recently, the race was on at some of the country's largest law firms to improve their packages, with firms like Herbert Smith Freehills, Allens Linklaters and Corrs Chambers Westgarth all now offering 18 weeks full paid leave for primary carers. A similar race occurred three of so years ago, with firms racing to extend their 12-week offerings to 14 weeks. Ten years from now, who knows what women will be offered.

But flexible working arrangements are as important, if not more important, to new mums as parental leave. As is the ability to access choices regarding how you want your career to progress while raising young children. As a diversity manager in a professional services firm told me yesterday, an essential shift in her firm has been ensuring managers effectiely communicate with their part-time staff regarding how they want to work – do they want to pull the breaks a little on their career progression for a period, or keep chasing partnership while working part-time? Are they prepared to check emails on their days off, or would they prefer to keep work contained to the days they're in the office?

Often workplace happiness comes in the form of certainty – knowing that a decision to plan a family will come with employer support, that you're in a place that will back and nurture your career, in your own time, regardless of your decision to have a child.

It's also about options. Choices over flexible work, telework, career progression and time out from work following the birth of a child.

The option to have a family, and a career. Just like men have had all along.

Angela Priestley

Angela Priestley is the Publisher and founding editor of Women's Agenda. She's an author, journalist and passionate advocate for workplace gender equality and diversity. Her first book is Women Who Seize the Moment.

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