How SMEs can build progressive workplaces

How can SMEs, without the resources of larger employers, deploy more progressive employment policies? Linda Hynes from Lewis Silkin‘s Dublin office reveals how.

The last two years have been a whirlwind of workplace and employment law developments.

Between managing the impact of Covid-19 on workplaces and moving to remote and hybrid arrangements there has hardly been time for employers to draw breath.

“The workplace is no longer just somewhere employees go to work; it’s a major part of their personal lives. A good employer will recognise that they need to support employees’ individual needs and life stages”

Employees are more vocal than they have ever been about what they expect their employer to do to support them. They expect their workplace to be environmentally sustainable, diverse, inclusive, and accommodating.

Large employers are always at the vanguard of new ways of working and developing progressive employment policies to attract and retain talent.

Being progressive can be more challenging for SMEs who don’t have the same resources as larger employers. SMEs can, however, pivot quickly to trial new ways of working.

Meeting employees’ needs and life stages

As the war for talent continues, it’s more important than ever for SMEs to consider what they can do to build progressive and inclusive workplaces. This goes beyond just waiting for legislation and then taking steps to comply. SME employers need to start considering progressive employment policies now to build for the future.

The workplace is no longer just somewhere employees go to work; it’s a major part of their personal lives. A good employer will recognise that they need to support employees’ individual needs and life stages.

Many large employers are looking at how to meet these needs and are introducing policies and benefits around menopause, early pregnancy loss, fertility and reproductive support, gender reassignment, mental health leave, elder care benefits and additional family leave, as well as building on their diversity, inclusion and environmental, social and governance initiatives. SMEs need to be able to compete with this.

As a starting point, SME employers should look to what’s coming down the track and start planning for changes in terms of employee pay transparency, family and related leaves, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Examples of developments in these areas that are on the way include:

  • Parent’s leave being increased from five to seven weeks in the coming weeks.
  • The implementation of the Work Life Balance Directive, which is expected to introduce a right to request flexible working for employees with a child up to age 12 (or 16 with a disability), five days unpaid leave for medical care purposes, an extension of the period during which time can be taken out from work to breastfeed to 104 weeks, and an extension of maternity leave entitlements to transgender men.
  • The right for certain employees to request remote work which, once implemented, will likely mean employers must have a written remote work policy in place.
  • Domestic violence leave being proposed which would provide paid leave for those who have suffered domestic violence.
  • The potential for socio-economic discrimination to be added under the employment equality legislation.
  • The implementation of the EU Pay Transparency Directive which includes an obligation on employers to provide job applicants and employees with information on pay levels.
  • A proposal for paid leave upon miscarriage to be available before the 24th week of pregnancy.
  • A proposal for parental bereavement leave for an employee who is a bereaved parent.

Building for a progressive work environment

SMEs should review their current practices and policies to ensure they comply with all the upcoming changes and guidance.

SMEs also need to implement other obligations recently introduced around the right to disconnect, gender pay gap reporting (applying to employers with 250 or more employees from this year, dropping to 50 employees in 2025) and codes of practice on harassment and equal pay. SMEs will also need to pay statutory sick pay soon.

In terms of building a progressive work environment for the future, small business owners should:

  • consider how the organisation can build on the benefits of home working for their employees so work-life balance can be improved.
  • consider how to retain talent. Post-pandemic, salary and status are not as motivating for employees as flexibility around other commitments, sense of belonging and purpose, company values (e.g. steps taken to address inequalities), and increased benefits (e.g. mental health days).
  • rethink their benefits – for example, home internet use or commuter benefits rather than a free lunch. Other benefits which are flexible and supportive to a specific employee’s needs could include contributions to childcare or fertility treatment support, time off for menopausal symptoms, time off to take up volunteer work, burnout avoidance support, career breaks and financial planning support to name a few.
  • rethink work hours. Consider trialling a four-day week or allowing atypical work hours to cater for an employee’s other commitments, where reasonable. 20 Irish companies have been trialling a four-day week this year so this will be an interesting space for SMEs to watch.
  • reassess company values. Ensure policies are in line with and uphold company values. Reinforce and amend those policies to make it clear that in a diverse workforce everyone’s views must be treated with respect. Invest in unconscious bias training.
  • finally, and most importantly, seek the views of the employees on what they want to see implemented in the workplace to help build a progressive and future proofed workplace. Do this through surveys, focus groups, idea boxes and talking to all employees. Provide feedback on progress made on their suggestions. 

In this era of the fourth industrial revolution and as the needs of employees change, SMEs can’t afford to sit back if they want to avoid the impact of the ‘great resignation’.

Future of work analysis predicts that employees will want to work less, work more flexibly, work on a range of different projects learning different skills and work for longer into old age. SMEs need to be ready for these changes.

Linda Hynes
Linda Hynes is a Partner at Lewis Silkin Ireland in the Employment, Immigration and Reward division. She holds a Bachelor of Corporate Law and a post-graduate Bachelor of Law from NUI Galway, and a Diploma in Employment Law from the Law Society of Ireland. Linda is also a certified practitioner in Data Protection and advise clients on data protection compliance.