A flexible family

Ian and Jane Spencer both work for WH Smith and have been able to work flexibly while raising their family.

Spencer family


Ian and Jane Spencer met on the firm’s graduate programme and the company has not just had an impact on their professional lives, but has also enabled them to flex their work around their family’s changing needs.

Ian is Head of Logistics Planning at the company. Jane is a Business Partner in IT looking after the tech needs of the merchandising section as well as those of the logistics department where Ian works.

Their story shows how WH Smith accommodates the needs of working families, both mums and dads. Since their first daughter Lucy was born 15 years ago they’ve both altered their working pattern while continuing to progress their careers.

After Lucy was born both continued to work full-time hours thanks to WH Smith’s in-house nursery, which their second daughter Ella also attended. “It was really helpful,” explains Jane.

“There was no guilt about the girls being in nursery for longer than we worked and they were on the doorstep if they were ill or needed us. It was really helpful when they first went to nursery as I could pop in to check on them – they found the transition easier than I did!”

Flexible working patterns

When Ella came along it triggered the first change in Jane’s working pattern. She dropped Friday afternoons at work, which allowed her to get more involved in the toddler groups and activities. .

And when Lucy started school Ian started doing flexi hours.

“The school offered breakfast and after school clubs, but we didn’t want the children in school from 8am-6pm, five days per week so decided I would delay my start time to avoid any breakfast club requirement,” he says. “I would take a shorter lunch break and leave a bit later too.”

With Ian squaring off breakfast club Jane stepped in at the other end of the day. She changed her pattern so she finished early two days a week. She still works like that today.

With the girls at secondary school now Ian is back to an earlier start time.

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Both Ian and Jane stress that the company has been flexible when it comes to school events or emergencies. “Informal agreements allowed me to take lunch breaks at odd times or leave the office early and make up the hours working from home in the evening.  This allowed me to go to all school assemblies, parents evening, school plays etc,” explains Ian.

“Because work is flexible I haven’t missed out on anything,” adds Jane.

Jane has a formal flexible working arrangement setting out how she will make up her full-time hours via shorter lunch breaks and working longer on the days she doesn’t finish early. Ian, like many men, has gone down the informal route.

Neither reports any issues with agreeing their working patterns. Although they both work for WHSmith, because they are in different departments their applications were administered separately.

Line managers, so key to making flexible working a success, were accommodating. Ian’s wanted to know what would happen if he had to go to a distribution centre away from his usual base in Swindon. As long as there was some notice given they agreed that wouldn’t be a problem. That experience informs Ian’s advice to anyone thinking about applying for flexible working. “Don’t be afraid to ask,” he says. “People think they are asking for odd things that will be an inconvenience or limit their careers but it’s the quality of work and commitment that count, not the specific hours worked.

“Be sensible as the arrangements work both ways – if you want flexibility, you’re going to have to give a bit back – working in the evenings sometimes, for example. If you just want to work less hours, ask for part-time working and accept your salary will reduce accordingly.”

Being sensible and recognising it’s a two-way street is key to Jane’s advice too. “Come up with a proposal that you believe you can make work in your role. Be willing to be flexible with your employer. Go for it,” she says.

Win win

The rewards if you do go for it are immense, according to the Spencers. Both agree having the ability to be around for their children has improved their lives as parents. “Being able to spend time reading, spelling and playing with the children when they were younger was great,” says Ian.

And they both reckon they’re better employees because of it too. Both are grateful for the flexibility they’ve been granted, so they give back more to WH Smith. “I appreciate being able to work flexibly so I tend to keep an eye on my emails when I’m not in work and pick up on issues as they arise whatever the time. I probably do this more as I have flexible working than I would if I worked core hours,” says Jane.

While Jane and Ian might have been trailblazers in flexible working things have changed at WH Smith now. The company has just introduced a core hours policy at its head office. Everyone there has to be at work 10am – 4pm, but they can build early starts or late finishes around that according to their own needs and those of the business.

It seems clear WH Smith has embraced the ethos of flexible working. Which may well set them in good stead as the world of work alters. And it’s why it’s worth heeding Ian’s advice for other employees looking to get on board. He suggests starting with trial periods to see what works for everyone, making sure line managers are trained up and bought into the idea, and ensuring policies are clear.

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