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Accenture is having a double celebration, following the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards. Not only did the global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company win the Commitment and Development Award, but it scooped the Overall Top Employer prize too. Workingmums.co.uk talked to Accenture’s Fiona O’Hara.
The awards don’t mean it is resting on its laurels, though. The company, which has approximately 205,000 employees serving clients in more than 120 countries, is pushing forward on areas such as harnessing technology for flexible working and extending the support offered to new and expectant parents.
“We were delighted to get the awards,” says Fiona O’Hara, the company’s Human Capital and Diversity Lead for the UK and Ireland. “We knew the competition we faced was pretty stiff, but we were conscious of the good work we have been doing, and it is great to have external recognition for it.”
The judges felt Accenture’s work on promoting women, flexible working, women returners and its generous maternity leave and childcare support package were exemplary.
They also praised the company for making a strong business case for offering flexible working on all fronts and at all levels and for the way it measured its impact on company performance and staff commitment.
O’Hara says Accenture is keen to use the latest in technology to advance its flexible working and adds that this also helps it to reach its targets on reducing its carbon footprint.
For example, it uses the latest in video conferencing technology in its technology suites to reduce the need for international travel. “When you go in to the Telepresence suite, it is as if you are sitting in the same room as the people from other parts of the world who you are video conferencing with,” says O’Hara.
Accenture also uses pc-based online conferencing equipment and active speaker detection. “It’s the next generation up from instant messaging,” says O’Hara.
It allows staff to contact colleagues around the world by instant messaging, speak over the phone, see them on video and to share their desktops, all in one tool. “It simulates being in the same room as someone,” says O’Hara.
Staff can use this equipment from their laptop so they can access colleagues regardless of location.
“It enables people working from home not to feel they are just on the end of emails and conference calls. I don’t think you can work like that all the time as it is quite isolating. The new technology makes you feel more a part of the team,” says O’Hara.
“If you are conferencing with someone and they ask you something you don’t know, you can ‘ping’ a colleague who does know and add them into the conversation. It’s as if you were in the office and stepped out of a meeting room to pull in a colleague for five minutes. It creates a collaborative office environment.”
In addition, Accenture employees use wikis and social networking to feed into the company policies. The company has a number of networks and interest groups such as its women’s network, Accent on Women, and these have an online presence.
Employees can start up a topic, for instance, on how Accenture should respond to the Equalities Bill. As O’Hara heads the company’s work on corporate citizenship and charitable work in UK/I she gets an alert every time someone contributes to a discussion on Accenture’s social networking sites.
Accenture always wants to be able to offer more than what current legislation dictates. In the UK, it currently offers two weeks’ paternity leave on full pay plus extra weeks unpaid [women get the first nine months of their maternity leave on full pay].
The company’s policies on flexible working and encouraging women into the workplace is linked to a sound business case, she says. “Women are a big talent pool for us,” she says, “so it’s a bit of a no-brainer to encourage them back.
We’ve invested in them and we don’t want to lose them..” Through its targeted maternity returners programme, the company has increased the number of women coming back after maternity leave from 75% to 90% in the UK in recent years.
O’Hara is also watching with interest to see what will happen if the Government lets women and men share baby leave.
She is very conscious of the need to make male workers and dads aware of their rights and what is available to them through the company.
The company’s Accent on Maternity network has expanded to include Accent on Paternity, and has been rebranded the Accent on Family group, for instance.
Accenture also ensures that flexible working is available to all workers and runs specialist maternity and paternity sessions for prospective parents before their babies are born where they can discuss the issues around being a working parent. It has produced a booklet called Combining Your Career with Parenthood which is aimed at both mothers and fathers.
On flexible working, Accenture tries to keep ahead of the game, for example employees can apply to vary their start and finish times with a schedule built around core hours, flexible working is open to all employees, not just parents, and many staff work some days from home.
It also encourages job shares. O’Hara has two jobshares in her Human Capital and Diversity team. Each person does three days a week so there is a handover day. It gives the company extra flexibility, she says, plus the skills and knowledge of two different people.
“Sometimes the challenge with people working flexible hours can be with client-facing work,” says O’Hara, “as they may expect people on a daily basis and timetabling can be difficult when there are tight deadlines to meet, but a lot of our clients are very supportive of what we are trying to do. It is the next step in collaborative working.”
Often clients will contact the company to get advice on flexible working and what works. “We’ve been in this for quite a long time and our policies and resourcing are pretty mature, although we never stay still,” says O’Hara.
The company also takes part in research which fits with its interests, for instance, earlier this year it surveyed over 500 senior executives from medium to large companies in 20 countries, as part of its International Women’s Day activities.
The survey focused on talent retention and development in difficult economic times and to better understand the steps organisations take to developing women for leadership positions.
“It has to be relevant to us,” says O’Hara. “Support for women is part of our human capital strategy and governs what we do.” Four members of Accenture’s UK and Ireland 17-strong leadership team are women, a proportion it is hoping to increase.
O’Hara is also keen that flexible working is seen to percolate from the top to the bottom and, as a senior executive, she practises what she preaches.
“I think it is really important that senior executives do so. Ultimately, as a woman in this position you are seen as a role model,” she says, adding that there is a strong business case for this.
More and more new recruits are asking questions about the kind of lifestyle they can expect when working for companies, she says.
“They are looking to the long term,” she adds, saying that Accenture can alter job descriptions to fit the different circumstances of staff. For instance, staff can choose to work less hours when their children are young or choose a role with less travel commitments and deepen their knowledge through training courses.
O’Hara has two children aged 6 and 7 and works from home several days of the week. She also takes part in dressage competitions and says she blocks out time for school plays and other family activities. “Accenture is incredibly supportive as it is outcome-based,” she says. “As long as you deliver. As much as Accenture gives, though, you have to be prepared to give back and be flexible.
It works both ways. If it was one-sided, it would not work.”