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How to woo more stay-at-home mums back to work
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How to woo more stay-at-home mums back to work

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Trehaus co-founder and chief operating officer Elizabeth Wu (right) and a child get messy with paint at The Trehaus Kids Atelier.

Mother-of-three Elizabeth Wu unwittingly found herself working out of playgrounds two years ago, as she stepped back into the working world.

It became the most convenient place for her to develop curriculum for her budding enrichment centre business while still engaging her three young children.

“But it was difficult to get work done. It was lonely too, not having co-workers to talk to or network of support,” recalled Ms Wu, 37 who had left her job as a junior college teacher back in 2014 to stay at home with her children.

“Working out of playgrounds was just unsustainable,” she said with a laugh.

Her solution, along with three mothers who faced a similar problem, was to set up Trehaus - Singapore’s first co-working space that is equipped with child-minding and learning facilities.

Trehaus facilities
Trehaus’ facilities for children

Trehaus in Claymore Connect features an adults-only area with private offices and common desks, as well as an adjoining open area that is outfitted with child-minding services. Lessons and programmes for children are also held there.

The two areas are separated by glass partitions and doors, which allows parents to see and be involved in what their children are doing.

The goal is to create an environment where quality work and family life can co-exist, said Ms Wu, who is now working full-time as the chief operating officer of Trehaus.

“Trehaus is a small place where we want to let parents find fulfilment in their careers while being involved in family,” she said.

“It takes a village to raise a child. That’s also what we’re trying to create here – a support network and go-to place for working parents to find their ‘tribe’, because it can get very lonely if you’re trying to juggle everything on your own.”

Torn between being homemaker or professional

Lady working on her laptop
Elizabeth Wu at work in her co-working space Trehaus

Ms Wu is not alone in her ambitions to relaunch her career.

A survey last year on 529 stay-at-home mothers who were keen to return to work found that most of them were keen to seek employment within a year, or the next one to two years.

Notably, more than 70 per cent of them have tertiary education, said NTUC U Family, the family development unit of the National Union Trades Congress (NTUC) which conducted the poll. Some feel that they should put their skills to use – in the workplace rather than at home.

Another reason is to supplement the family income. Indeed, a study by recruitment consultancy Robert Walters found that most women in Asia return to work for financial reasons. A smaller proportion of them want to learn new skills, or find a sense of fulfilment which they do not get by staying at home.

The number of women staying out of the workforce has been dipping in recent years.

This is especially for women in the prime working ages of 35 to 59, according to data from Singapore’s Department of Statistics. For instance, the number of women aged 35 to 39 who are not actively looking for work declined from 41,100 in 2010 to 27,700 in 2017.

For mumpreneur Wu, the drive to return to work during her two-year break was hard to suppress.

“Staying home with my children gave me a huge sense of fulfilment, but there was always this feeling – I wanted to do more things to supplement the family’s income, to make good use of my time while they were asleep,” she shared.

More women needed in the workforce

There is also a strong economic case for stay-at-home mothers to return to the workforce, given Singapore’s tight labour market and ageing population.

Going by Singapore’s population trends, women outnumber men, have a comparatively longer life expectancy, and are catching up with men in terms of education qualifications, noted a NTUC U Family spokesman.

“However, manpower studies have shown that more women than men tend to leave the workforce prematurely in their prime working ages due to their need to provide caregiving for their family members. This is a potential loss of skilled talent in a tight job market,” he said.

“And when the women return to work, they tend to be under-employed too. The gap in their career path could lead to reduced retirement adequacy, which is crucial in the light of women having a higher life expectancy.”

For businesses, the lack of gender diversity in a firm’s leadership positions can also affect corporate decisions, he said. After all, companies with a good representation of both genders can benefit from having diversity in views and ideas.

Making workplaces more mummy-friendly

There is still a pressing need for progressive workplaces that can help women stay on or return to the labour force and advance their career and leadership roles.

But the good news is that companies in need of experienced professionals are already doing more to woo mothers back into the workforce.

For Ms Christina Anthony, being able to adapt to the workplace was her biggest worry when she decided to go back to work last year (2017).

Ms Anthony, 50, had hit the pause button on her career in 2014, after her husband died suddenly. She packed her bags and moved to Sydney, Australia with her sons, aged 10 and 15 then, in the hopes of “reinventing life” for the three of them.

Last April, seeing that her children’s lives were back on track academically, she decided to pick up from where she had left off.

She joined German software giant SAP and became the programme manager for the company’s Back-to-Work Programme in Asia-Pacific and Japan, under the human resources department.

“After four years of being a stay-at-home parent – cooking, cleaning and coaching my two boys, I wasn’t sure how I would fare back at work again,” she said. “But on my first day back, I realised I was ready to take charge again and get things going - it’s like riding a bike, you never really forget.”

What made it work, she added, was SAP’s supportive work environment. Being able to work on a part-time basis and from home was “a tremendous help in balancing my need to be there for the family, to find time for myself and yet work in a fulfilling role”, she added.

Its Back-to-Work programme, launched in June 2016, offers project-based employment and practical assistance to professional women looking to re-enter the workforce. To date, 26 women have joined through the initiative.

“There is a global talent shortage and companies need to transform to win the digital war for talent and meet further objectives,” said an SAP spokeman.

Meanwhile, Trehaus is growing its corporate clients who are renting the co-working space for mother employees. It now includes a multinational company and a number of smaller firms such as mobile services provider Allterco.

This is a heartening sign, said Ms Wu, because it shows companies are increasingly doing more to help their employees’ achieve their career and family aspirations, by offering them family-friendly working options.

“So many mums come to us and say, ‘If only my bosses took up a desk here, if I was assured I still had access to my kids, flexible hours, or facilities like a nursing room, I wouldn't have resigned,’” she added.

Pro-family assistance

Help is also under way to help employers better foster pro-family workplaces.

Last year, NTUC U Family launched its Returners Programme for Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) who have left the workforce on caregiving reasons and are keen in returning to work. The programme provides partial government funding for training allowances for new hires.

At the same time, employers can look to the Tripartite Standards as a guide to help them improve their practices in different areas, such as flexible work arrangements and offering unpaid leave for unexpected care needs.

Funding support such as the WorkPro Work-Life Grant, which has been recently extended and enhanced, are also in place to help employers implement flexible work arrangements.

Singapore’s OCBC Bank is one company that has partnered NTUC in its move to woo mothers back to work. It has in-house childcare facilities at some of its bank branches. The third and latest centre, Little Skool-House@One Marina Boulevard, that is operated by NTUC, opened last November.

More than half the allocated places for OCBC employees at the centre have been taken up, said a spokesman. The bank also offers employees flexible or part-time work arrangements.

Said OCBC Bank head of HR planning Jacinta Low: “It’s about engaging and retaining talent. When employees feel well-supported in their workplace, they are more focused and productive, and will generally feel more motivated to stay on in an organisation that cares for their well-being.”


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