Flexible hours, remote work and career breaks are the best way to stimulate productivity and innovation in your workforce, a lead insurance provider has found.

Suncorp New Zealand, the financial services provider behind the Vero and Asteron Life brands has overhauled the 9-5 workday in the past four years and said the benefits to staff have been life-changing.

The company has always offered some degree of flexibility, but this was focused on women with children seeking hours to suit family life.

As International Women's Day approaches on March 8, the company, which is a significant player in the traditionally male-dominated insurance industry, is doing all it can to level the playing field for women at work.

Catherine Dixon, executive general manager of people experience at Suncorp New Zealand, said one of the best ways any company could do this was by removing bias - so Suncorp's flexibility had pivoted to embrace the varied needs of all employees.

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Now, more than 85 per cent of the workforce - men and women alike - use flexible hours and remote working so they can balance work demands with personal needs such as avoiding rush-hour commutes, caring for family members or even getting to the gym.

"We get a great return in terms of loyalty, commitment, and innovative thinking," Dixon said.

"We are working differently and we have blown traditional ways of working out of the water."

Catherine Dixon. Photo / Supplied
Catherine Dixon. Photo / Supplied

Since the introduction of flexible hours and remote working, the company has seen higher retention of talented staff and reported a more productive and satisfied workforce.

"People have said our approach to flexibility has actually changed their lives," Dixon said.

Suncorp New Zealand also offered some staff members "career breaks" if they wanted to pursue something more long term.

"It might be travel, volunteering or a family commitment that they need a bit more time for and we protect their employment until they return," Dixon said.

"They come back to us really refreshed and appreciative of what Suncorp NZ offers."

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Suncorp NZ consumer executive manager Sacha Cowlrick said giving all staff flexibility, regardless of gender or dependents, helped removed bias around women being assumed to be their family's primary caregiver.

"Members of my team who are dads know they can work from home, so they can do the pick-ups and the drops-offs and take their share of looking after the kid when they're home sick. It takes the burden off their partners and frees them up to genuinely co-parent," Cowlrick said.

"Many women with children automatically take on the burden of balancing work and home life and it's great to see our men taking advantage of the opportunity to flex their work and share the load."

Sacha Cowlrick. Photo / Stephen Robinson
Sacha Cowlrick. Photo / Stephen Robinson

Cowlrick stressed to her team they could use flexibility for a variety of reasons, whether it was for sporting pursuits or family.

"I make it very clear that flexibility is not just for those with children, because for me that reinforces stereotypes about women in the workplace," she said.

"Being able to flex your work around other life commitments no matter what your age or gender makes for a more positive workplace."

Cowlrick encouraged her team to use flexible hours and remote technology to improve their lives but warned them not to let it sneak into personal time.

"Technology is an enabler but it's also important to me to make sure my team is not always on," Cowlrick said.

"Especially with the women in my team. We don't want them logged in at night, feeling they have to work extreme hours in return for flexibility. It's not sustainable and not what we expect."

Cowlrick had come through the male-dominated insurance industry and said she was often the only woman in the room.

This was slowly changing, she said.

It took structural changes in society, she said, to make a difference and corporates had a responsibility to lead the way.

"We talk openly about women in leadership positions and measure that - what gets measured gets done," she said.

Suncorp NZ was also working toward closing the gender pay gap at the company.

Dixon said this was something the company was committed to improving.

"Insurance has been very male-dominated and we are changing that," she said.

"It's not just based on what people are paid but the composition of the workforce, so one of the steps we're taking is to develop our high potential women to move through into more senior roles."

Suncorp NZ is focused on improving recruitment so there will be a pipeline of good female talent across the business.

"We are shaping our business so that it no longer follows traditional patterns and women are being actively encouraged to do things they haven't always done," Dixon said.

"It's not about disadvantaging men, but about making sure our talented employees shine, whatever their gender."