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The Government’s Family Friendly Working Taskforce recently announced that Whitehall would lead the way in promoting flexible working.
One department which has made huge strides over the past year is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which covers everything from animal welfare and disease to support for farmers. Every member of the 3,000-strong core team has a laptop and can work anywhere. There is a lot of hot desking and the department is, says Diversity Specialist Jeanette Forder, “fully mobile”. “We encourage smart working,” she says, “and there is a lot of flexibility on this, as long as it works for managers.”
Some sixteen percent of staff, mostly women, work part time, but many more work at least part of their week from home. This is because much of the work is policy-related, including writing reports and researching information. Forder herself is full time, but tries to work at least one day a week from home. Much of this type of working is not negotiated formally as people may work from home on an ad hoc basis, depending on work demands, but the department relies on some homeworking since it only has an 80% desk ratio. This means it has been able to reduce the size of its estate which, besides saving money on overheads, has also seen it cut its carbon footprint. It also has a homeworking toolkit for managers so they know how to manage homeworkers effectively.
In 2009, the department carried out a parents survey in anticipation of a raft of new measures related to its childcare policy. “We wanted to understand more about the parents in our organisation, what level they were at in the department and what ages their children were,” says Forder. Around 1,500 members of staff replied.
Out of this has come the department’s childcare strategy which was rolled out in October and includes efforts to encourage parents to take up childcare vouchers, with images carefully targeted to include all parents and children of all ages. One of the main focuses in recent months has been fathers. “When people talk about working parents they think it is just about mums,” says Forder. Although the department has many dads working part time or from home, Forder admits it can be difficult to track whether fathers are taking up any benefits directed at them. This is because if mothers have gone on maternity leave they are easier to identify, whereas with dads it is hard to know how many there are in the department unless they volunteer the information in surveys and other data or take paternity leave.
Defra is hoping to track the roll-out of the strategy and obtain data to show whether it has been successful and whether, for instance, certain grades are more likely to take up benefits, but cannot know for certain if all dads who are eligible are taking advantage. It has set up FAQs for dads to show them what they are entitled to. Some are not aware, for instance, that they qualify for childcare vouchers – they think this only applies to mums – and that vouchers cover holiday schemes and after school clubs as well as early years childcare.
Forder adds that parents and work is a fast-changing area and all parents need to be kept in the loop. For instance, the Government has mooted the possibility of dads sharing paternity leave with mothers. “There is likely to be a lot coming through from Government in the near future and we will support anything that becomes law,” she says. “It will involve some extra logistics, but we will make it work,” she adds confidently. “It’s not rocket science.”
Before the childcare strategy was launched, Defra set up an online parents site called Parents@Defra. It was not, says Forder, intended to be a networking site, but a place where staff around the country could keep up to date on the department’s childcare strategy and other relevant issues. Since the childcare strategy went live it has started evolving into a network with staff discussing various issues and giving each other information. There are now 68 members of Parents@Defra, which Forder says is on a par with the department’s recognised staff networks.
A spin-off has been the creation of Parent Champions. “We wanted to get parents involved in strategising for the future,” says Forder, “They currently act as contact points for giving out information on our childcare strategy.” She hopes the Parent Champions will eventually be able to form a steering group to drive forward the department’s childcare and parent policies and feed back ideas from the grassroots as well as arrange face to face sessions on issues such as childcare policy. By 2011 she anticipates that Parents@Defra will become a fully fledged network and will liaise with the department’s other networks, including one on work life balance which includes advice on flexible working for all staff. Forder hopes too to put more case studies of parents at Defra on the intranet so people can see how their colleagues are managing.
Defra is also working on promoting more women to senior positions. Currently, although women make up around 50% of staff there, they only account for 23% of senior civil servants. “Everyone has a development manager to help with career development,” says Forder. “In addition to a good maternity package, women who go on maternity leave are entitled to 10 Keeping in Touch days and can negotiate a gradual return with their managers,” she says.
Forder used to work for Opportunity Now, a membership organisation for employers who are committed to creating an inclusive workplace for women, so is in an ideal place to promote future strategies. Her background means she has a good idea of what best practice is in promoting inclusion. She says, however, that the best way of changing the working culture of an organisation is through getting the employees themselves to drive it rather than imposing changes from on high, unless they are major policy or legislative changes. “Some changes need to come from the staff,” she says, “and organisations cannot always know what staff want.” An example is the work life balance work being done. Defra has developed toolkits on work life balance, but it hopes to develop coffee mornings with managers over the next year or so so that they can debate what the issues are – this includes finding their own work life balance and acting as role models for other staff who might be put off going for promotion by managers working long, inflexible hours. Forder says there are already many senior staff working flexibly, including the department’s permanent secretary – a woman who works part time.
She adds that many of the changes in terms of encouraging parents are in their early days still, but, with the new framework in place, progress is organic and building every day. “Watch this space,” she says.