Setting the scene
We hear from three executives about the initiatives they have been involved in to promote different approaches to flexible working.
Each was asked a series of questions about their experiences, including programme implementation; the challenges involved, response from colleagues; the benefits achieved; and the advice they would give others.
Initiative no.1: Four-day week
Chris Ainslie now a consultant, was previously the first male Vice President at BT to work a four-day week, during which time he introduced an innovative and highly-successful deputy programme. He explains his reason for wanting to preserve his worklife balance and how his decision helped colleagues progress their careers.
My own decision to work part-time was very personal, my twin brother died of a brain tumour 11 years ago and it brought home to me the fact that life isn’t a dress rehearsal. I’m very passionate about people having the right to work how they want, I don’t see myself as a trailblazer, I happened to pluck up the courage to do it.
I was very fortunate, when BT asked me to join them, I was clear I only wanted to work a four day week and finally they agreed. When I arrived I was asked to be a gender champion, promoting a better way of working and demonstrating that having a better worklife balance shouldn’t limit a successful career.
I steadfastly stuck to always having Fridays off, there were no quick emails or calls, but you have to be sure you are as good as anybody else and you have to be very disciplined, massively optimistic and confident you can do things in a reduced time.
The deputy programme came about because, from a selfish perspective, I didn’t want to come back after three days away to find things still on my desk. Each of the seven MDs who reported to me had the real responsibility of being a VP once every two months. I made it clear that they had full signing powers and accountability.
My direct reports became visible to my peers, it gave them a valuable opportunity and consequently the people who wanted to impress put a lot of time and effort into doing so. During my six and a half years at BT Global Sales, only one internal VP was appointed and that was someone from my team; and similarly one of my temporary MDs was promoted into the role because she had made such an impression as a deputy.
In turn, something I hadn’t expected was that one of their reports stepped into their shoes on the days they were deputising for me, this cascaded down the whole organisation so everyone was aware of the programme.
I think it’s hugely ironic that we still measure work output in terms of presenteeism and whenever anybody poured cold water on the idea I would say let’s look at the results. Over four years, successes included revenue growth up 16.7%, the employee engagement index increased significantly and client satisfaction was up 13%. For me, that was the proof of the pudding.”
Initiative no.2: Job share
Catherine Nealon, Senior HR Business Partner - B2B & Marketing at E.ON, shares her experiences of piloting a new job share register to help employees identify colleagues who want to share roles.
E.ON has a group-wide diversity programme and I’m part of a project group focusing on flexible working. One of the issues is that as you become more senior, roles often have to be full-time, which can preclude the opportunity to work flexibly.
My view was that if you can demonstrate job share works at a senior level and in customer facing roles, it is very difficult for people to argue that non-customer facing roles can’t be done on the same basis.
I suggested the idea of a job share register to help people continue to move up the career ladder by registering their details and finding colleagues who want to do the same. It was made very clear that managers are supporting the pilot, so people don’t have to gain the permission of their line manager before they register.
We went live to 1,600 employees in December 2014, promoting it through our internal communications and via line managers, and we also involved trades union representatives, who were very supportive.
As the initial uptake has been slow, we’re currently undertaking some research to understand if there any issues or barriers with the scheme and to encourage more people to sign up. There has certainly been lots of interest from employees and other areas of the business, but we probably need more people to be involved and a greater critical mass before we can really understand proof of concept.
We know we have successfully raised the profile of job sharing as an option, at least two job share arrangements have succeeded recently, so if people are open to that without needing the register that’s also fine by us. We certainly want to keep people rather than lose them and we will do more to promote the scheme.
My advice would be to make sure you have senior level support and sponsorship as without that, it’s very difficult to move people on.”
Initiative no.3: Implementing flexible working
Vernon Barchou, now Vice President HR Specialist Services at DHL Supply Chain, talks about the programme he led to promote flexible working:
One of DHL’s key strategic priorities is around how flexible and agile we can be. It’s about being an employer of choice, finding a way of providing a better worklife balance for our people and giving them more choices in the way they want to work.
Flexible working is also about meeting customers’ needs, for example, the retail environment is changing, with people shopping more online, the profile of our work is evolving and we need to have people in the right place, at the right time, doing the right job.
The need for more flexible working therefore, started with a real pull from the business to see what we could do differently. Of course, as with all changes, there were some people who got it and some who didn’t, and we had to change the ‘no’ people into ‘yes’ people.
We created a network of 100 flexible working ambassadors and I took them through a workshop where we focused on understanding what the blocks were to flexible working and then determining the solutions. We looked at issues such as changing mindsets, company culture and dispelling the myths, and we also looked at the benefits to the business, after which they went out to promote it to colleagues.
Now, over 82% of our flexible working requests are approved around the organisation. The majority are 30-somethings, from which we make the assumption they are balancing childcare arrangements; but the second highest group is 55+, many of whom were men who wanted to work fewer hours, and others who have caring responsibilities. It has helped us understand what more we can do to support an ageing workforce and broadened the work of our diversity forums.
The number one benefit has been employee engagement and the advantages that come with it, such as retaining skills and knowledge. I think all roles can have elements of flexible working and I hope people would see DHL as an organisation that allowed them to be both flexible and successful in their career.
My advice would be to get people together and have a workshop. The 100 people we invited felt very differently about flexible working than they did when they arrived. In turn, that spurred the debate which people need to have if you want to adopt the idea. I believe ignoring flexible working makes you uncompetitive.”
These great examples show what can be achieved when businesses take an innovative approach to flexible working. Those organisations who still see flexible working as a novelty run the risk of losing the best talent to their more forward thinking competitors.
The choice is theirs but, as Vernon so neatly sums up, ignoring it is simply not an option.