As working parents we face a constant struggle to give the best we have to both our careers and families. A valuable tool in helping to achieve the perfect balance is the ability to work flexibly. Flexible working embraces everything from flexible hours, part-time work, job shares, annualised hours and term time work to working some or all of the time from home. Sometimes these arrangements are contractual and sometimes they are ad hoc but essentially they allow you to balance the needs of your business with the needs of your family.
It sounds great doesn’t it but for a large proportion of the workforce it’s a utopia that they cannot reach primarily because their employers have not yet understood the value that flexible working can offer a business in terms of employee retention and engagement. There are however some forward thinking organisations that have not only accepted it but are actively encouraging it. Cue Ernst and Young ‘EY’ who are leading the charge on flexible working practices, not only for parents but for all employees.
EY have a published vision; “We value the strength of difference in thought and perspective. To enable the mix of people in the firm to reach their full potential, we have taken action in a number of ways”. They see life balance as a key factor in their employment offering and believe that the more flexibility they are able to offer the better placed they are to attract high calibre people who may not traditionally have considered them as an employer due to the impossibility of balancing competing demands on their time such as parenthood, acting as a carer, entrepreneurship and a raft of others. EY launched their ‘Work Smart’ programme two years ago. This programme encourages a change in mentality – rather than looking at where and when their people work, they are trying to concentrate on what they achieve.
They are actively working with managers to identify and explore new methods of working and are utilising technology to great effect. All staff are offered the opportunity to undertake a variety of both formal and informal flexible working options. These include part time hours, career breaks, job shares, term time working, working from home and working beyond normal retirement age. On an informal basis staff have the opportunity to work from home or other offices nearer their homes if they don’t need to be present in their usual offices or to use technology to join a meeting rather than physically being present. There are flexible working champions working throughout the business who are constantly sharing ideas and promoting best practice. The other advantage of such practices is the contribution that the organisation is making to environmental sustainability by reducing the carbon footprint of its business through the reduction of employee travel and commuting. However, the overriding factor in all this is clients. Clients’ needs come first and flexible working must fit around those. It must be truly flexible in that the employee must be flexible too, for example changing their normal day off if they need to attend a client meeting. For flexible working to be effective it must cut both ways.
10% of EY staff have taken up a formal flexible working arrangement and many more make use of informal arrangements. We interviewed Suzanne Robinson who has worked for EY since 1993 and been a partner for the last two year about her flexible working experience. Flexible working has long been seen as the domain of Mums but when Suzanne initially requested to formally change her working patterns she didn’t have children. She’d been on a 12 month sabbatical and negotiated an 80% contract on her return. She’s very clear however that this was not 80% of a 40 hour week but, in an industry that traditionally expects excessive hours, 80% of the hours that a full timer of the same level would normally work.
Suzanne worked the 80% week for several years and during that time also took two periods of maternity leave. A year after the second maternity leave Suzanne elected to return to full-time working. I asked Suzanne how easy it was for herself and her colleagues to manage her reduced working time and she recounted some advice she had been given at the start to be strict about not working on her off day unless there was a client need for it. She says that people quickly got used to dealing with her on the days she did work and that even clients were very supportive.When asked about the advantages of a formal flexible working arrangement Suzanne felt that she had much more control over her own life and was able to be a better wife, friend, daughter and employee because of it.
There are also disadvantages though and Suzanne highlighted the fact that reaching the position of partner had taken longer than it would have done had she remained working full time. It’s not a matter of discrimination though, more a straightforward calculation. If it takes X amount of experience to become a partner and a full timer reaches that point in X amount of years then someone who only works 80% of the time will take 20% longer to reach that level. This was a realistic concession that Suzanne was willing to make and now having made partner she has no regrets.
It just goes to show you flexible working does not have to be limited to parents and it does not have to be career destroying as many think but you do have to be realistic about what you want out of it and the compromises that you are prepared to make. As time goes on more employers will come to understand the huge benefits this approach can reap them in terms of talent attraction and retention and that will a great thing for all of us.