21st century shipbuilding

BAE Systems Naval Ships has just won the Workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working. Workingmums.co.uk asked HR manager Emma Nabb how they transformed their work culture.

Flexible working at home


The job of transforming a traditional, male-dominated company into one of the most progressive in the shipbuilding business is rather akin to turning an ocean-bound tanker around in a storm. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

But BAE Systems Naval Ships has done just that and has won the workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working as a result.

The transformation came about as part of the company’s ongoing diversity and inclusion focus. About a year and a half ago Emma Nabb, HR manager, Programmes & Support Diversity & Inclusion, was given a stretch assignment to focus on enabling a diverse and inclusive workplace.

She recognised that having a flexible working environment was an important part of this and to understand how to achieve this research was done on best practice in other organisations, employee satisfaction and feedback and understanding the business drivers and case for change.

BAE Systems Naval Ships had some flexible working in place, but there were different conditions on offer at different sites and even within a site.

“There were a lot of inconsistencies. There was flexible working, but when we spoke to employees we realised it was not fit for purpose and that there wasn’t a culture of people feeling they could work flexibly,” says Emma.

She realised early on that leadership buy-in and support for change was vital. That meant she meeting the managing director and getting the management committee engaged through making a strong business case for flexible working.

Being bold and innovative in the approach and ensuring that a culture was embedded where performance was measured by output rather than working in a particular place at a particular time was critical.

“We felt it was really important to embed the right culture,” says Emma, “and to cut our core hours right back.”

The organisation decided to adopt core hours which run from 10am to 2.30pm, but within those hours allowing people to take an ad hoc pop out, for instance, if they had a doctor’s appointment, as well as a two hour period where people could take lunch – effectively reducing core hours to a two and a half hour window.

“It’s about trusting people,” says Emma. “In the few cases where there may be issues we will deal with those on an individual level rather than assume people will abuse the system.”

She added: “If we had gone to senior leadership two years ago and said we are going to have two and a half core hours a day but without engaging them appropriately and obtaining their support as a part of a wider cultural transformation then it’s unlikely that we could have been as bold in our approach.

We invested a lot of time and commitment to understand our own culture, make sure it was right and to argue the case for why it was important and what benefits it would bring.”

Opening conversations

People had to see colleagues throughout the company, from senior leadership down, working flexibly so they could feel enabled to do it themselves.

Managers had to be encouraged to open conversations about flexible working with employees and their team.

The team in BAE Systems Naval Ships developed a toolkit to help them to  “embed a culture rather than just write a policy and about thinking about what good looks like.”

Apart from the leadership team, it was crucial to ensure the unions were on board from an early stage. BAE Systems Naval Ships has strong union relations so it was important, she says, to show that they were adopting a fair and consistent approach which would take into account the different needs of different employees.

Changing the work culture of an entire organisation is not a small task, and crucially the team within BAE Systems Naval Ships was made up of a strong team of volunteers from across the business, including people from different functions, grades, lengths of service etc.

This ensured that the case for change and the new way of working were fit for purpose for the business and employees.

The new flexible working policy was rolled out from October 2013, but the organisation held a diversity and inclusion workshops for 180 senior leaders a year before.

The discussions from these workshops helped create the business case and further understanding of what good would look like. At the meeting a senior leader had a lightbulb moment.

“He had not realised that every night when he was working late when he went to the toilet everyone had left when he came back. Because his desk was at the door people had been waiting for him to go so they could leave.

It suddenly dawned on him that people had interpreted him as a gatekeeper and that people did not feel comfortable leaving when he was at his desk.

He worked late, but he didn’t expect other people to. He spoke to his team about his expectations afterwards and encouraged them to work in a way that suited them and moved his desk away from the door,” says Emma.

Embedding the culture

Her team began drip feeding information about the new policy from March and September was a month when lots of conversations about the new work culture were held. Between October 2013 and April 2014 118 people took pop-outs and 73% of the company’s professional employees took flexi hours.

There was a 22% reduction in paid time being taken for medical appointments and overtime with predicted savings of £440,000. More is expected to be saved for individual employees and the company through increased homeworking and reduced travel costs.

However, the most powerful feedback was from anecdotal feedback from employees about raised morale and increased engagement because of smart working practices. “It is something they really value,” says Emma.

Now BAE Systems Naval Ships is focusing on continuing to embed the culture through internal and external communications.

Emma has now moved on to a new UK diversity and inclusion role in BAE Systems. She says she learnt a lot in the process. Her commitment was clearly key to driving it through, although she credits a strong team. From a part-time diversity and inclusion stretch assignment, it became a full-time passion.

“It makes a big difference to individuals and the company and without my team of champions and leadership support it would not have happened.

That structure is still going in my absence and volunteers are covering my role until a replacement starts work. They are a passionate group of people who want to make this change and it has helped them grow and develop.

We started off behind the curve of BAE Systems and we are now seen as a model of good practice in the UK business. We have come a long way, but recognise that there is still work to be done.”

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