Insufficient understanding of the importance of enticing new mothers back to the workforce, and persisting traditional management practices, are hindering Hong Kong companies in tapping the potential of working mothers.
In recent research undertaken by the flexible workspace provider Regus, only 50 per cent of respondents in Hong Kong agreed that companies which actively hire returning mothers are more likely to be successful. Although this figure is close to the global average of 52 per cent, it compares poorly with data from the mainland and Taiwan, where 76 and 67 per cent of pollsters respectively appreciated the importance of working mothers re-entering the workforce.
“In Hong Kong, it remains unappreciated what difference it can make for companies to employ women,” says John Henderson, chief financial officer of Regus Asia-Pacific. “According to the IMF, in some countries as much as 27 per cent of GDP is lost by not making it easy for women to return to the workforce. And companies with more women on the board are more profitable, as reported by the Financial Times last year.”
With unemployment in Hong Kong at a 16-year low, working mothers could help alleviate labour shortages, Regus’ research suggests. However, only 79 per cent of Hong Kong respondents thought firms which ignore returning mothers are missing out on a valuable source of labour. This is below the global average of 80 per cent and compares with 82 and 88 per cent in the mainland and Taiwan.
But, well ahead of China, Taiwan and even the global average of 85 per cent, 90 per cent of Hong Kong respondents thought flexible working hours were the best way to get mothers back to work.
“Flexible hours help mothers in scheduling; they can balance out what is important. Being able to work around your commitments is a brilliant way to work for everyone, but especially mothers,” Henderson says.
Working at a location closer to home was the second best solution, with a popularity of 62 per cent, and part-time roles were the preferred solution for almost half of respondents. Crèche facilities, video conferencing and job sharing were the least preferred. “Companies which embrace job sharing do not see it as a second-rate process. The benefit is that you are sharing and you are not on call 24/7,” Henderson says.
According to Regus, 56 per cent of Hong Kong respondents said an increasing number of women were asking to work remotely when they return from maternity leave. This compares to 47 per cent in China and 62 per cent in Taiwan, with a global average of 60 per cent.
“When you give people a certain element of control to work their way and where it is convenient, they are motivated. They can get work-life balance right and fit their life around the work element and other commitments. Managing under supervision is outdated,” Henderson says.
“We are working with Hong Kong companies to allow them to have the right structure and flexibility to bring women back to the workforce. It’s a bit slower in Hong Kong – it lags slightly behind the global average,” he adds.
A number of companies already have well-structured programmes that support their female employees. These programmes also include certain flexibility in working hours and remote working. EY, for example, offers reduced work hours, a career break for up to two years and a break of one or two months each calendar year during non-busy periods. Depending on the job nature, arrangements for flexible working hours or remote working can be made on a case-by-case basis.
“We hope that by providing a more flexible working environment for our staff, they will be more likely to stay with EY, more engaged and ultimately, able to perform at their best,” says Agnes Chan, EY managing partner for Hong Kong and Macau.
At American Express in Hong Kong, 67 per cent of employees are female, while at manager level and above, the number is over 50 per cent. It offers mothers returning from maternity leave the option of working part-time for three to six months, remote working from home and other help.
Susanna Lee, the company’s vice-president and general manager of card services for Hong Kong, says: “We set up a ‘Women’s Interest Network’ – or WIN – which seeks to improve work-life balance for working women and mothers, support their professional development and enhance their engagement in the company.”
Henderson believes the real solution is to offer flexible working conditions to working mothers, where they can choose where and when to work. He suggests companies introduce a policy of flexible work, and ensure the technology and infrastructure is provided to make it possible.