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Best People Professional Carrie-Ann Odlum: the power of family leave and wellbeing

For Carrie-Ann Odlum, HR operations manager at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, winning People in Law’s Best People Professional award has been a career highlight and welcome recognition after the Covid-19 pandemic presented myriad HR-related challenges.

“It felt pretty amazing,” she tells People in Law. “It’s been a full-on 18 months, with many competing projects, new ways of working and business as usual all against the backdrop of the pandemic, so it was nice to get recognition for some of the positive things achieved in that time.”

Odlum has been with Freshfields for four years, joining after six years at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner where she was part of the international HR business partnering team. During that time, she has been instrumental in putting in place the policies and interventions needed to evolve the firm’s culture and make real progress on inclusion and wellbeing.

One of her key achievements that caught the eye of our judges was her work in improving family leave provision, which has helped attract and retain talent in an increasingly competitive recruitment market.

“A lot of the legal and professional service firms had started to increase paternity leave early in 2020 which was documented in the legal press, so when we started to review our family policies that spring we knew we were behind on this.”

New parent leave

Its traditional paternity leave policy was revamped into a ‘new parent leave’ policy to be more inclusive of all sexual orientations and genders, and was extended from two weeks to 12; while the qualifying period for enhanced pay across all family leave policies was reduced from 18 months to 26 weeks and clawback provisions removed, going beyond what some competitors offer.

“The changes landed very well. Enhancing the support we provide to working parents and to enable them to spend more time with their families in the early stages of parenthood reflect our continued commitment to being an inclusive workplace” she says.

Odlum consulted with some of the firm’s D&I networks and individuals who had taken shared parental leave or had advocated for fathers playing a more active role in childcare to ensure the language used in the policy was fully inclusive. She also had conversations with partners to determine what impact extending paternity leave could have on the business, and to work out some of the practicalities that could be involved.

Freshfields’ family leave polices have proved an invaluable retention tool. “We had a lawyer who had been offered a job at another firm, but he decided to stay with us because of the new parental leave offering,” says Odlum.

Holistic, early intervention

Employee wellbeing has also been a major part of Odlum’s role. She developed a new approach to wellbeing across Freshfields’ London and Manchester offices by focusing on a holistic, early intervention and prevention strategy. An annual programme of activity and a wellbeing hub was introduced, underpinned by a communication and training strategy targeted at both individuals and managers/team leaders.

This responded to feedback that wellbeing events were sporadic, considered an “initiative” and knowledge of the available resources were low due to information being in different places making it difficult for people to source the right support, when they needed it.

The programme, now in its fourth year, was shortlisted for Best New Workplace Approach to Mental Health, in the This Can Happen 2020 Awards, and consists of panel events, webinars and access to a digital wellbeing app, enabling people to proactively measure and manage their wellbeing.

“The key for me was embedding wellbeing into the everyday, ensuring that the wellbeing programme is consistent, structured and the activity is meaningful with the content informed by data such as occupational health, ensuring that resources are easy to locate and understood, and that there was an ongoing dialogue at all levels,” she says.

Absence and leave

Odlum also led on the development of an annual leave and sickness absence dashboard, a tool to provide HR business partner teams with a clear ‘at-a-glance’ view of absence and leave activity, which has enabled informed wellbeing conversations with managers/team leaders. This has helped to address issues with work-life balance which are also known to affect the wider legal sector.

This has helped to reduce the number of annual leave days carried over by 500.

“Being able to actually see the data in this way is insightful and quite powerful when analysed in conjunction with additional data such as lawyer hours and ensures that consideration is given to the need to ‘switch off’.” she says.

Odlum was also appointed as the UK lead to increase awareness and engagement with the firm’s refreshed purpose and values, a global project involving more than 250 people at all levels of the firm.

“Empowering tomorrow is our purpose, through which we enable our clients to succeed by navigating their most complex legal challenges and creating opportunity where others see barriers. We seek to create a better future for our clients, our people and the communities in which we live and work. Our three core values – embracing challenge; promoting collaboration; redefining excellence – are what drive our success and are at the heart of how we approach our work and relationships,” she says.

She will continue to support the firm’s head of HR – London with key people priorities and projects, in line with the global HR strategy.

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