updated 7 Jun 2012, 21:44
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Mon, Mar 26, 2012
The Star/Asia News Network
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Companies that help women achieve work-life balance
by Ivy Soon and S. Indramalar

[Above: (From left) Ong Lee Lian, Norliza Kamaruddin and Ina Ibrahim.]

Like many working women, lawyer Lily Rozita Mohd Khairi's challenge is in juggling her responsibilities towards her work and family.

It's all the more difficult for Lily because her nine-year-old daughter, Sasha Hanna Ridzuan Everts, suffers from West's Syndrome (a rare form of epilepsy that affects infants) and needs special care.

"With some children, the syndrome will fade away and there will be developmental progress in the child. In Sasha's case, she keeps having the fits and therefore needs to be medicated every day.

"We also have to make sure she is mobile so that the spasms don't set in.

Sasha goes for various therapies every day and because she doesn't talk and is unable to tell us when she is in pain or not feeling well, we have to take her for regular check-ups every few months where she has ultrasounds done to make sure she is all right.

We have nurses with her always and my mother helps a lot too," says Lily.

Despite the demands of looking after a child with special needs, Lily has excelled at work.

She is the managing counsel (business development and shared services) at Shell Malaysia's legal services unit where she oversees a team of 16 lawyers and paralegals.

"This is because of the family-centric policies at Shell, which allow women (and men) to achieve a work-life balance.

The company recognises that by letting its employees find a balance between work, family and any other interests they feel is important, they will feel supported and therefore, will be empowered and happy to work," says Lily, who has worked in Shell for 17 years.

Shell has various work policies which allow, among other things, employees to work from home or work flexible hours or even part time.

"The principle is that you are basically responsible for your own work. You have to work things out with your clients or your line manager - determine when things have to be delivered, what your deadlines are and how you can go about doing your work.

That is where the flexibility kicks in and there are many permutations of the flexible working hours policy at Shell.

We don't really count whether you work eight hours or not. What we really look for is the response time and the quality of work.

This is, of course, something you have to earn and isn't a given. It is built on trust and you have to prove yourself worthy of that kind of trust," explains Lily.

Shell recognises that finding a balance between work, family and other interests is both important to employees and will help develop an effective, dynamic organisation where staff feel supported, empowered and happy to work.

The company's prime objective is, of course, to meet its business goals.

But it also believes that providing a culture in which individuals are encouraged to discuss ways of finding the appropriate balance is key in meeting this objective.

The responsibility for finding this balance rests with employees individually, with support from management.

Shell believes that the organisation's goals may be met by being as flexible as possible to accommodate an employee's personal choices.

Such policies have been a blessing for the 40-year-old mother.

"I will be the first to admit that I have fully benefited from these policies. I took advantage of them as soon as Sasha was born.

When she was younger, I chose to work from home more often - maybe two or three days a week, depending on what was feasible at work.

That way, I got to spend more time building up her support system and doing therapy with her. I think that helped shape her home environment.

I'm trying to do a bit more work at home now, but it's not so convenient nowadays. So, I choose to work flexible hours.

I go in later so that I can be there when Sasha wakes up, wish her a good day, feed her breakfast and do some therapy with her before I come to work. I do this daily, mind you.

"It is tough for any woman to have the best of both worlds - a fulfilling career and also a fulfilling family life.

It is doubly hard for someone like me who has to juggle the needs of a special needs child.

"But because of my flexible work arrangements at Shell, I manage. Honestly, if not for this, I wouldn't have been able to work at all ... simply because of the severity of our daughter's condition," shares Lily.

Even so, there have been times when Lily has thought of quitting her job to be with her daughter. But those were fleeting thoughts on particularly trying days.

"There were days when things seemed so impossible that I considered stopping work. But because I was always able to solve things .... either I worked shorter hours in the day and made it up at night, or I worked from the hospital if Sasha had to be admitted.

It's all possible because all the hardware and software is in place for a virtual working environment. It is really just a matter of adjusting.

"There are many opportunities and possibilities but at the end of the day, you still have to make sacrifices and choices. You still have to determine what your priorities are," she shares.

Most employers expect their workers' priority to be putting in long hours, usually equated with commitment and productivity.

Standard Chartered Bank head of Corporate Affairs Norliza Kamaruddin has worked in different sectors over the past 25 years, and is all too familiar with relentless work demands.

But for the past two years that she has been with the bank, Norliza has been able to get home early enough to cook dinner for her four children.

The single mother has been able to spend more time with her teenage children, including joining them for concerts.

"Last year, we actually went for a holiday to London for three weeks. I have never been able to take such a long stretch off work before," says Norliza, 47, who has also arranged to not travel for work in the latter part of the year as her children will be sitting for major examinations.

Like Shell, Standard Chartered Bank also practises policies that enable its employees to achieve a better work-life balance.

Its work philosophy is centred on diversity and inclusion, and aims to provide a working climate that allows everyone to fulfill their potential.

It helps employees deal with the responsibilities of their job and still meet the demands of their lives outside work.

These policies are women-friendly because women usually bear the brunt of looking after their families, but they are also extended to male employees.

Head of Human Resources (wholesale banking) Ong Lee Lian, 45, has also benefitted from the bank's women-friendly policy.

When she had a new maid last year, Ong was able to work from home for a week as she helped her settle in.

"The work still continued even though I was home. With devices like smartphones, I remained in touch with the office. But there was peace of mind as I didn't worry about what was happening at home.

"It's a matter of establishing a trust level between the boss and staff."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Norliza says that clocking off early or working away from the office does not mean employees are distracted and get less work done. It's about working more effectively, and being focused on their tasks during working hours.

Even when job demands do not allow for flexible working hours, such as in the trading room, the bank has come up with initiatives to give its employees some flexibility.

"We have a buddy system, where our traders partner a colleague. They cover for each other when the need arises," says Head of Sales (Financial Market) Ina Ibrahim whose team consists of 13 women and two men.

For instance, if a trader gets a call from her child's school, and she needs to rush off in the middle of the day, she knows she can rely on her buddy to take over her tasks.

Ina says the policy has encouraged more openness, and fostered closer relationships among her team members.

"We know each other better, and some of us even spend weekends getting together with our families. We also organise activities as a team, such as jogging together after work to keep fit. We go running after work," shares Ina, 40.

The bank's women-friendly policy also includes ensuring their female staff stay longer in the workplace.

Senior managers mentor middle-level managers and chart out their career paths with them.

Many women leave the workforce when they are in their early 40s because they are burnt out, or when the juggle between work and family gets too overbearing.

"A senior manager will mentor a subordinate, and work out how she could work more effectively. We also do career path planning so our women managers have an idea of where they are heading. It's hard to train new traders," says Ina.

Ong, who has worked in human resources for 20 years, says a happier work force is a more productive one.

"They also stay longer," she says, adding the bank also organises various programmes for the staff to engage with each other, and contribute to community projects.


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