Alison Hernandez has been living and working remotely in regional NSW for more than five years, well before the COVID-19 Pandemic that has seen massive shifts in how we work from home.
In that time, Hernandez has also seen her business Sageco grow and get acquired. She’s been promoted multiple times, including to where she is now, as managing director for APAC of career transition and outplacement services provider, Randstad Risesmart.
And she’s learnt a lot about managing teams remotely, and extended on what she already knew from her time living in metropolitan cities: that real flexibility supports families and staff wellbeing, and enables employers to access the best talent possible.
Previously leading career transition services for the Sydney Olympic Games, Hernandez signed the business papers to launch mature-age transition consultancy Sageco with her co founder Catriona Byrne on the foot of Catriona’s hospital bed, the day after she gave birth in 2004.
“My daughter at that time was two years old,” Hernandez explains. “We had no choice but to create a family friendly environment, and to work from home, and work part time. We just changed it as we went, in line with what we personally needed and what the business needed.”
Now a Family Friendly Workplaces Ambassador, Hernandez continues to manage her all-female leadership team remotely. Since COVID-19, Randstad Risesmart has launched in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, delivering career transition and HR services across 16 countries.
I spoke to Hernandez for the Family Friendly Workplaces Podcast, an initiative of Parents at Work and UNICEF Australia asking how leaders are creating more supportive workplaces and acknowledging the needs and caring responsibilities staff have outside of work.
She recalled how it was her own experience, moving from a high profile corporate role, before having her daughter in Spain and consequently becoming detached from the workforce, that shaped her thinking around supporting parents and their careers. When her daughter was four, Hernandez became a single parent running a business, and then a regional manager when Sageco was later acquired.
She’s continued to work flexibly and remotely, and has seen the direct value of leaders role modelling flexible work and demonstrating how they make their own leadership family friendly.
“Hybrid, remote work, has always been the norm for us. That communication, connectivity and conversations are an art you need to practice and gain prowess in,” she says.
Running a highly productive team now spanning seven countries, Hernandez says leaders need to work hard at connectivity, and work even harder at demonstrating to others the power, value and the how behind connecting.
The business has a number of formal and informal structures in place supporting meetings, including weekly check ins. They also run regular CEO updates inviting all employees and contractors to join in order to learn the latest company updates, before facilitating all staff members into different Zoom rooms for networking and learning and opportunities to seek advice off each other.
“For me, I am completely borderless and reason neutral,” Hernandez says on how staff can work. “Our staff can work from home even if they can be in the office. It has no impact on our productivity, we don’t care where they are working as long as they are giving us their best work.”
Randstad Risesmart was one of the first employers to be certified by Family Friendly Workplaces. Hernandez says the process gave the team an opportunity to seek validation for what they were doing right, as well as awareness on the gaps they needed to improve on.
It’s unsurprising to learn they scored 100% on certification on flexibility: with 100% of staff working flexibly, and all jobs advertised as borderless.
From there, the firm offers 12 weeks paid parental leave to primary carers, an industry leading benchmark in recruitment. Hernandez says they are in the process of improving these parental leave policies, including extending their offering for secondary carers and ultimately aiming to remove such ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ carer labels later on.
The firm also offers a number of additional leave initiatives, including ten days paid domestic and family violence leave, as well as Loyalty Leave and birthday leave. They advocate for healthy workplace wellbeing, and have a number of trained first responders in place to support staff, as well as their clients.
“At the end of the day my philosophy is that if you’re not providing a family friendly workplace then your competitors might be. Leaders need to make much better decisions in a time of talent scarcity, or they will find themselves with very empty buildings,” Hernandez says.
But leaders may actually need to go much further in the future of work, adds Hernandez, especially given the research globally that finds 4% of women’s employment was lost last year, compared with 3% of men’s employment.
For one, employers should take intentional steps to combat bias occurring in hybrid working environments, with some staff attending offices and others working remotely. Hernandez says every business must aim to avoid presenteeism and address how and where staff are being unfairly penalised because they’re not physically present in an office. Everything from professional development to promotions and access to opportunities must be made available regardless of where people are working.
Further, Hernandez believes the widespread implementation of career coaching will serve employers well now and into the future.
“Career coaching should move from something given to employees when they leave an organisation as a gift for their future, to something given when they join the organisation as a gift for their future.
“I have concerns about people left behind,” she adds. “If organizations can bring that career coaching upstream, to invest in women and parents and carers’ careers from the beginning, even when they are working 100% remotely, it would make a huge difference. If employees have a coach in their corner who is guiding them and acting as a sounding board on how to be visible, even when you are not physically there, it makes a difference.
“That’s being inclusive. And that is supporting employees to drive their own future.”
For Hernadez, she’s also personally demonstrating that leaders don’t need to work around the clock, and clear boundaries can still be established when you’re working remotely.
She recently moved to a nine-day fortnight – something that was expected to be temporary but that she may just make permanent, and even extend in to a four day week next year.
“It is absolutely possible if you have great people around you, and if you support those people in also working flexibly,” she says.
You can listen to the Women’s Agenda interview with Alison on the Family Friendly Workplaces podcast below.