Last year, the University of Toronto added breastfeeding-friendly spaces for female faculty, staff and students. While women are welcome to breastfeed anywhere on campus, the new spaces are in quieter areas close to amenities.

The new spaces are the work of the university’s Family Care Office, a division of the human resources department, in collaboration with other departments around campus. The office encourages modified spaces that are more nursing-friendly and advertises the existing ones to the university community.

The initiative is emblematic of the office’s work. Established in 1993, it provides employees and students with a wide range of family-related services and referrals, spanning everything from childcare recommendations to elder-care advice to the creation of family spaces on all three campuses.

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Kelly Hannah-Moffat, U of T’s vice-president of human resources and equity, says the office embodies the university’s commitment to retaining its talent, noting it also helps set it apart as an employer. “Part of that is being responsive to the holistic needs of employees inside and outside the workplace,” she says. “Certainly, they come here to work, but they also have lives outside of their work.”

Family first

When the office first opened, it had one family care advisor and a big mandate. The advisor was tasked with referring U of T employees and students to family-related services, such as childcare or elder-care support, offered by the university or the community. Staff could come into the office, but the services were primarily accessed over the phone.

“It was very ambitious with one person in 1993, but very forward-thinking,” says Francesca Dobbin, director of family programs and services at U of T. “It’s great to see that this came to fruition and we’ve been able to expand it to what we have today.”

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The office now offers a wide range of services, which are available to U of T’s more than 100,000 faculty, staff and students. With five advisors, it has expanded its offerings to include planning assistance for parental leave, relocation assistance for faculty moving to Toronto from other countries, events such as Bring Our Children to Work Day and discussion groups on separation and divorce. The services are also available to the partners of U of T employees.

In numbers

The number of calls U of T’s Family Care Office deals with every year

The percentage of casework that concerns planning for parenthood, childcare services and children’s programs

The number of childcare spaces at six facilities across three campuses

The number of subscribers to the office’s e-newsletter

Dobbin notes 56 per cent of the office’s casework concerns planning for parenthood, childcare services and children’s programs. “We seem to be more heavily focused on people’s earlier stages of family life and now, [we’re] hitting the sandwich generation,” she says. “Where we’re seeing a trend growing is elder care and caregiver leave, supporting individuals who are caring for either an ailing elderly parent or a partner that’s not well.”

Though the Family Care Office has only one physical office at the university’s downtown campus, it makes its presence known to U of T’s large community through its website, social media and e-newsletter, via flyers and in staff and student orientations. It also hosts educational programming at the Mississauga and Scarborough campuses, as well as sending an advisor out to each campus once every six weeks. University community members can access the office and its staff in person, over the phone and even through Skype calls.

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Currently, the office is working on an initiative to expand U of T’s family-friendly spaces, such as a family study space at the John P. Robarts Research Library; working on programming to align with the university’s strategic plan on mental health and well-being; and making sure its programming is representative of the diverse community.

“We want to make sure that everyone feels included in the programming and sees themselves in it, and that we’re offering a range of different services and perspectives,” says Hannah-Moffat.

The right fit

According to Nora Spinks, chief executive officer of the Vanier Institute of the Family, workplaces that provide family services for employees can house them in several different departments, including as a subset of HR, within occupational health or employee assistance programs, or as part of an employer’s suite of lunchand-learn sessions, resource materials and referrals.

For some employers, the services may also be considered part of the benefits program, through support like parental leave top-ups or, in some cases, under women’s advancement, “if they’re still seeing it as a women’s benefit,” says Spinks. “It really depends on the organizational culture. There really is no right way or wrong way; it just needs to be the right fit.”

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In the past, employers’ work-family initiatives have tended to ebb and flow based on the labour market, she says. In times of employee shortages, some organizations would beef up these offerings to help with recruitment and retention, and then pull back once it became an employer’s market again. More committed employers have stuck with, and expanded, their offerings over time, she adds.

“Really, it’s about where the employer wants to place work and family — whether they see it as a strategic initiative or they see it as a perk. For some organizations, it’s clearly a strategic advantage, it’s part of the recruitment, retention [and] culture development.”

When family-friendly benefits were primarily targeted towards women, the benefits were seen as a perk or accommodation, says Spinks, but that’s changing. With more men taking on a larger role in childcare and starting to take paternal leave, combined with a shift away from women being seen as the traditional caregiver for an aging parent, family-friendly benefits are becoming a critical element in HR management. “It’s a core support service benefit like vision and dental,” she says.

Family support offices like the one at U of T are typically the domain of universities and other large employers, but smaller organizations can also create similar programs on a reduced scale, notes Spinks. “We tried to determine if there was a perfect size organization or a perfect demographic that would make these kinds of centres most valuable and most viable. We were unable to find a pattern. It was more about leadership commitment: either leadership at the C-suite level or the owner-operator level . . . or just some really dedicated frontline managers who have come together to address an issue they’ve identified.”

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Employers considering implementing family-friendly services can start small and make a big impact by simply acknowledging their employees’ lives outside of work.

“Whether that’s giving people the autonomy and flexibility to start and end their day [in a way] that aligns with childcare,” or giving them the ability to take time to deal with a sick child or an older parent’s doctor appointment without being penalized, “that’s the easy stuff,” says Spinks. “As you move forward, it’s how do you make sure that these programs are equitable and everyone has access to them?”

A crucial way to successfully build these programs is making sure a department, committee or person is accountable for them. At U of T, the Family Care Office reports to two vice-presidents. “When you’ve got [an office] reporting to two VPs, it doesn’t get any higher than that,” says Hannah-Moffat. “We do take it quite seriously. It’s always been very important to us.”

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Spinks agrees it’s important to have someone who has clear control over the program. “As long as somebody has the responsibility and the authority, then things can happen and will continue to happen,” she says. “Progress happens when there is accountability.”

Kelsey Rolfe is an associate editor at Benefits Canada.