How do we change work culture to make it not only more family friendly, but more human friendly? As poll after poll shows employees often rate flexible working higher than pay rises and more than six months after the government extending flexible working legislation to all employees, why is it not the default setting of all organisations and why do so many still offer only the most standard forms of it?
It doesn’t seem to be because employers don’t get that it is a business as well as an employee benefit. Over half of over 400 employers – both large and small – recnetly surveyed by Workingmums.co.uk found over half thought it improved retention, particularly of women, and over a third said it made workers more efficient. Nevertheless, only 36% of employers had an official flexible working policy. Moreover, 30% say managers find it hard to manage multiple requests which suggests their response to flexible working is not part of an overall flexible work culture.
Yet many employers are benefiting from an embedded flexible culture. What is needed is for them to share what they are doing and how it has helped their business to grow and meet customer demand better.
They include employers like McMillan Williams Solicitors, whose flexible working policies have helped boost the number of women in senior positions in a sector long known for its long hours culture. Ten of its 22 partners are women. Its policies have also helped it to retain staff expertise, increase company loyalty and productivity and enabled it to be more agile and to undertake a large expansion programme. Partner Nicola Manning, a mum of five, recalls being told by someone about the 30% Club. The person was talking about how firms were aiming to have 30% women on boards within five to 10 years. “I remember thinking we have 50% already,” she says. This is no accident, but part of its commitment to adaptability. “Where women would have abandoned their legal careers at other firms, we have seen them progression to senior roles and training others,” she says.
Larger organisations have also benefited from being more flexible, even in industries which are considered a bastion of traditional working practices. BAE Systems Naval Ships has turned around its work culture in one of the bastions of traditional working. The company has moved away from the clocking in mentality and now has core hours from 10am to 2.30pm, with additional flexibility within these. HR manager Chris Westcott says this has made family life so much easier for him and others and increased his commitment to the company. He says: “You can almost not put a price on it. I cannot overestimate how important it is. For people with families it is the most important thing an employer can offer.”
For SMEs such as IT firm Hireserve and Reality HR a flexible work culture is in the very DNA of their organisations. Both firms have a structure that makes flexibility work for all those employees who want or require it. That structure includes in-depth strategic planning and carefully thought through initiatives to ensure there is always cover even if every member of staff is working different patterns.
Different sectors face different challenges with regard to flexible working. Careers like consultancy, for instance, often require a lot of travel and on site working which might be difficult if you want to work flexi or reduced hours. Management consultants A T Kearney has dealt with this through its Success with Flex initiative which enables flexible workers to progress up the career ladder or adopt alternative career paths, for instance, consultants can move to non-consultant roles or work on internal projects for a period without affecting their career trajectory.
In the rail sector, there are particular challenges around roster working for train drivers. This makes part-time working difficult, but one way round this is job shares. Adeline Ginn of Women in Rail is pioneering dialogue across the sector on how to address such problems and increase diversity at every level of the industry.
In higher education women can often find themselves struggling to catch up with research after taking maternity leave. The London School of Economics has introduced an innovative research term leave policy which allows any academic who has been absent for more than 18 weeks a teaching-free term on full pay to catch up on research. Most returning parents can opt for a phased return to work using their accrued annual leave. Fathers can also take up to 16 weeks of Additional Paternity Leave on full pay. Combined, the policies mean women academics can share their leave with their partners and do not feel that their research career is penalised by taking maternity leave.
The different issues each industry faces shows the need for not just those companies which have for long been leaders in innovation in flexible working – such as the major banks and accountancy firms – but for employers across the spectrum and large and small to share what they are doing on flexible working and how they are making it work.
*Workingmums.co.uk has just released its Best Practice Report which provides more information on all the cases described above and a summary of the latest developments in flexible working and diversity.