The wildly successful My Food Bag won the hearts of working parents nationwide when it announced a policy of giving staff with new babies an extra 18 weeks of paid parental leave.

The Government increased paid parental leave [PPL] from 16 weeks to 18 weeks last week, making My Food Bag's 36 weeks double the legal entitlement and, in pregnant co-founder Nadia Lim's words, extending a business philosophy of "healthier, happier families" to its workforce.

While not every company is making the millions helpful to providing such generous PPL, Juliet Rowan discovers some businesses in the Bay who are going out of their way to help employees better balance the demands of work and family.

Lisa Ebbing, director of Hot Milk, a global maternity lingerie company, operates a flexible working environment for employees at the firm's Mount Maunganui headquarters. Photo/John Borren.
Lisa Ebbing, director of Hot Milk, a global maternity lingerie company, operates a flexible working environment for employees at the firm's Mount Maunganui headquarters. Photo/John Borren.

Hot Milk

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"Juggling 50 balls at once is definitely a working mother," says Hot Milk director and mother of three Lisa Ebbing.

Lisa and her business partner, Ange Sloan, are part of a team of nine women and one man at the maternity lingerie company's Mount Maunganui headquarters.

All the women have children, and Lisa says Hot Milk has developed a flexible working environment in the decade since it was established.

"We've developed over the years from being a 40-hour-a-week company [to] most people work 35 [or] 37, but everyone works different hours," she says.

"We've had to work out how to get the business working efficiently but making sure that every mother gets to do her job at home as well."

The inspiration for Hot Milk came when the youngest of Lisa's three daughters was a baby and she was searching for nursing bras.

The lingerie is now stocked in 27 countries and enjoying strong growth in its online store.
Lisa says some employees begin their day after dropping off their kids at school, while others have younger children who go to daycare from 7.30am, allowing them to begin work at 8am and finish mid-afternoon.

"We always say, 'Children first, work second, as long as you're getting the job done,' and the team we have is amazing. They do get their job done. They just figure out a way ... The other day a girl came in at 5 in the morning because she wanted to leave at 1[pm] so she could go and spend the afternoon with her son."

Lisa believes that flexibility is key to the company's success.

"I definitely think the team are more dedicated because of the flexible hours," she says.

The reality is you need two incomes to pay a mortgage these days.

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She herself works flexibly, doing 35 hours at the office, which allows her to pick up her daughters from school three days a week, and does another 15 hours in the evenings and on weekends. The 40-year-old has a "nice little routine" in the evenings, sitting down on the couch with her laptop at 8pm after her girls, aged 7, 9 and 11, have gone to bed. Her friends often comment that it is terrible she has to work at home, but Lisa disagrees.

"Actually if you like what you do, it's not terrible. I do put on some trashy show in the background on telly and have my laptop and my glass of wine, and I actually like [it]. I'm passionate about what I do, I like the job. I think as long as you find something that actually does interest you, then it won't feel like it's too much of a chore."

Lisa says time becomes irrelevant as a business owner juggling kids - "you've got to do a bit all round the clock" - and she admits it is not always easy: "There are days where you kind of feel like you're failing at both."

But the environment at Hot Milk, whose employees include a single mother with triplets, is very supportive. "We're all mums. We know if someone has a little meltdown, we get it, we understand."

Lisa also knows the financial difficulties working mothers face, saying when her children were little, she spent up to $25,000 a year on childcare and worked for very little to get Hot Milk off the ground.

Although she has no pregnant staff at present, she says PPL has been a topic of discussion in the office recently and, like My Food Bag, the company would want to offer more than the 18-week Government entitlement to any employee with a new baby.

"The reality is you need two incomes to pay a mortgage these days. And to put a little baby in to daycare at four months, it's hard ... Probably what we can afford won't be to the full extent of Nadia Lim, but will definitely be a step in that direction."


Blink Public Relations

"The structure of the juggle, as I always call it, is something that can be incredibly stressful if you don't have support from your employer," says Tauranga businesswoman Natalie Bridges. "But it doesn't need to be. It can actually be very fulfilling."

Natalie employs six salaried staff and several contractors at her growing Tauranga communications firm Blink PR. Three of her salaried staff are women with children, and she herself is mum to two young sons, Emlyn, 4, and Harry, 2.

"I know what it's like to have a baby and want to get back to work but want to also be with that child and ensure that you can be giving as much as you can to that child," she says. "I don't see the two as being incompatible."

Blink PR director Natalie Bridges with sons Emlyn, 4, and Harry, 2. Photo/John Borren
Blink PR director Natalie Bridges with sons Emlyn, 4, and Harry, 2. Photo/John Borren

Natalie operates a "high-trust model" at Blink, allowing her staff to do their hours when and where it suits, dependent on client meetings.

"If someone wants to work at home for a day, then that happens. If there are some events at school or there's something family-wise they need to attend to, that happens, and the understanding is that the time is made up somewhere else as they can do and as it suits them and their families and their lives."

Natalie says her staff feel a deep sense of responsibility to make the flexible system work and far from detracting from her three-year-old business, it helps deliver clients a superior service.

"When you put your trust in people, it gives them ultimate flexibility to work to the way that suits creativity [and] suits the way their brain functions."

She says her flexible approach is part of a worldwide trend that allows women, in particular, to return to work and grow their careers while also playing the important role of parent.

Natalie has yet to have an employee go on parental leave, but says she would do her utmost to support anyone who did, and she also greatly admires My Food Bag's doubling of PPL.

"I completely agree that if you treat women kindly and with that kind of respect, you are going to get really, really good results. Ultimately, it benefits you and the business."

Chaos & Harmony/Blak Chaos

Rebecca Anderson, director of fashion labels Chaos & Harmony and Blak Chaos, is not in the business of adding to her employees' stress.

"I have run the gauntlet of balancing work, family, running a business, being a mum, being a woman and everything in between so I get it," says Rebecca, who has a 4-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter.

Anderson founded shoe label Chaos & Harmony and collaborates with clothing designer Teresa Hodges in their business Blak Chaos, which has stores in Mount Maunganui and Ponsonby, Auckland.

They employ six staff across the two labels, all of whom are women except Rebecca's husband Greg, who is online director.

The business is coming up to eight years old and Rebecca says she and Greg often discuss workplace stress.

"All the stress that we put on ourselves, how are we going to pay for that?" says Rebecca, 36.

Chaos and Harmony and Blak Chaos director Rebecca Anderson with husband Greg and two children Valentina, 8mths, and Matthias, 4. Photo/Andrew Warner
Chaos and Harmony and Blak Chaos director Rebecca Anderson with husband Greg and two children Valentina, 8mths, and Matthias, 4. Photo/Andrew Warner

"Does that come at a risk to us in our older years? Is our age group going to be struck with some of those degenerative diseases that affect us in certain ways because of the pressure to return to work, the family pressures that people face today?

"Holistically, I don't want to be part of creating more pressure for mums who already have it anyway."

Four of the business' five female employees have children and her business partner Teresa also has kids.

"So we're extremely mindful of family and work/life, and how the ebbs and flows of that ride work," says Rebecca.

"There are times when you've gotta be with your kids and there are times when there are work commitments that you need to meet."

Like Natalie Bridges, Rebecca says her staff are ambitious women who want to be successful in their careers while loving their children dearly.

"We don't see a problem with either/or."

I think sometimes your lifestyle is just one that you have to talk to the accountant whilst you're breastfeeding or whatever it may be, and so you just need to take it within your stride and keep calm.

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Rebecca says sometimes the two worlds collide but everything is workable with her team.

"Every one of them are aware of their responsibilities, and they would bend over backwards to make it work, and if kids are sick, they've already come up with a plan before we've even had to work one out."

Like the other female bosses in this article, Rebecca says her business sets clear targets for employees and she trusts them to get their jobs done - "I refuse to micro-manage our staff because that's a waste of my time and my skill set" - and she likes to think of providing flexibility to working mothers in the context of a deeply rooted business culture.

"It's part of our core values. We love our families, we love our customers and yes, we create and design shoes, but much more than that, we are thinking about women, so to not have this aspect of our business, would just not be a good fit at all."

With one pregnant employee each of the last four years, Rebecca supports the idea of extending PPL beyond the new entitlement to six months, saying she has watched friends struggle with being forced to return to work quickly for financial reasons.

She also knows well the challenges of combining work with an infant, having taken both her babies to China on business trips when they were 10-12 weeks old.

At the same time, she dislikes describing the mix of work and parenthood as a juggle.

"I think sometimes your lifestyle is just one that you have to talk to the accountant whilst you're breastfeeding or whatever it may be, and so you just need to take it within your stride and keep calm."

Blur Eyecare's Stuart Laing and Haidee Mannix with their daughter Mika Laing. Photo/Andrew Warner.
Blur Eyecare's Stuart Laing and Haidee Mannix with their daughter Mika Laing. Photo/Andrew Warner.

Blur Eyecare

For Blur Eyecare owner Stuart Laing, sharing the same qualification as his wife Haidee Mannix has helped balance the demands of running a business with having young children.

The pair are both optometrists and job share while caring for their almost 2-year-old daughter and 4-week-old baby son. "If I burn out, I've got a backstop in Haidee," says Stuart. "Conversely, I'm essentially working two jobs at the moment."

Stuart admits it is unusual for a couple to be in their position, but says it has worked well since they took over their business three years ago. "We're in the middle of our five years of pain in terms of expanding and having kids, and that's allowed us to do that."

The pair own two shops in Tauranga and Mount Maunganui and their two staff also have children. "Everyone's in the same boat. Everyone knows the repercussions of sickness and school and school holidays," says Stuart.

Stuart and Haidee support the Government's extension to PPL, Haidee saying it gives working parents the option to stay at home a little longer with their kids.

Haidee says Blur would definitely want to help any employees with babies in the future.
"It's difficult for mums in particular trying to get back into the workforce after they've been out with kids for a wee while. Being a smaller town, it's nice to be able to support local people [too]."