Engineering flexible success

woman touching 3D shape


Halcrow is unusual in the construction and engineering industry. Not only does it have an innovative policy on flexible working, but a large number of male employees work part time. Workingmums talks to group HR director Mandy Clarke.

The thing that strikes you most when you look at international building consultancy firm Halcrow’s flexible work policy is the number of men who work part time. This is not only because it is in general unusual for men to work part time, but because the construction industry has such a macho reputation.

Although women still dominate the part-time figures, 40% of the companies part time workers are men. This includes senior managers, according to Mandy Clarke, group HR director at the Swindon-based company. “Our flexible work policy does not separate men and women,” she says. “Flexible work is open to everyone.” She says flexible working is positive in several ways – it improves employees’ engagement with the company and it also means that the company can work more flexibly around clients’ demands.

Halcrow has over 8,000 staff with around 30 offices in the UK and over 50 worldwide. It has a relatively long history in terms of flexible working and this is part of the reason it was named one of the top employers by Working Families recently – it was the only company from the construction industry represented in the list. Halcrow introduced flexi time 30 years ago. “The view was that the company trusted people and felt that if they worked till midnight they should take time off. It’s an adult relationships. It was unusual at the time and it is still an unusual position in this industry,” says Clarke.

Male-dominated industry

Halcrow works in the field of construction and the built environment, which includes road, tunnel and bridge building. It’s a male-dominated industry and the statistics bare this out. Only 9% of staff in the industry are female. At Halcrow, though, around a third of the UK-based workforce is female and this is likely to increase since 45% of new graduates coming into the organisation are female.

Clarke says engineering has gradually become a more attractive profession to women, but there is still a way to go. Since she joined Halcrow in 2002, having worked previously in smaller firms, the pharmaceutical industry, IT and been in the air force, she has overseen dramatic changes in the number of senior women promoted in the company.

Clarke was indeed the first woman to come into the company at such a senior level. “Other women said I was the first female director as if I was some kind of unusual animal,” she laughs. It was an important step for the company to have such a role model. Clarke is pleased that since those days when less than 1% of senior management positions were occupied by women the number has crept up to 8%.

She is well aware that there is more work to do and has mentored other female staff to build their confidence. The company now ensures that all staff going on long term projects have mentors assigned to them.

The company is constantly reviewing its flexible work policy. If currently offeres flexitime [with core work hours being 10am-4pm], part-time working, job shares, annualised hours and homeworking part of the week. Clarke says things like annualised hours are beneficial for the company as they help deal with seasonal peaks and troughs in business activity. It is considering introducing compressed hours in the US where flexi-time is not legally possible and extending flexi-time to other parts of the world where it has offices due to its success in the UK.

Other benefits which might interest working parents are childcare vouchers and extended medical cover for an employee’s partner and dependents. It seems to be working as 99% of women return from maternity leave. This only slipped from 100% in the last three years because two women decided not to return. Those who do return have the option of starting part time and gradually increasing to full time.

Working mum

Clarke is herself a working mum so is well aware of the issues around return to work. She has two daughters aged 15 and 12 and has worked all her working life, going back to work 11 weeks after her first daughter was born. She has mainly worked full time, but has also done a job share. She says she thinks having parents can make for better workers. “You tend to grow up more and be more well rounded. Plus there are a lot of parenting skills which are transferable to the office, such as multitasking and organisational skills,” she says.

Clarke says the current economic situation has focused the minds of Halcrow managers. Internationally, there has been a big fall in work, particularly in the Middle East where some work has dried up overnight. Halcrow is aware of other companies like KPMG offering employees a reduced week as a way of avoiding redundancies and might consider this as an option if it has to make savings, but nothing has been decided yet.

One area it is looking at is increasing homeworking for those who want to and whose jobs allow them to work from home more. “We want to maximise the use of our offices,” says Clarke, adding that using office space on a more 24/7 basis and encouraging homeoworking could cut overheads.

Clarke is confident, though, that Halcrow will be flexible enough to cope in the recession. The reason: it already has flexible working “in its DNA”.

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