Flexi gardening

Workingmums.co.uk speaks to Martin Carty about his gardening business which scooped this year's Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for businesses employing fewer than 26 people.

Martin Carty's flexible business model came about as a matter of necessity.

An experienced gardener with over 20 years in the business – including a stint at Grosvenor Estates in London – Martin needed work that fit around his wife's annualised hours. He set up Martin Carty Gardening in Warwickshire around seven years ago. That was just before the couple's two children, aged seven and six, were born and he has worked part time around their nursery and school hours.

He put an advert in the local newspaper seeking part-time gardening work and soon after was taken on by an apartment block. A friend's husband was about to be made redundant and asked about part-time work. The business has grown from then based on an annualised hour business model.

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It's a model that clearly works as the business has increased by 20% per year.

With such a strong business case for flexible working, Martin entered the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards. He says he was “pleasantly surprised” to win the Award for SMEs with one to 25 employees, sponsored by RBS Group.

The secret of his success is regularly reviewing the annualised hours his staff work so that he can meet their and the business needs.

Martin says that annualised hours mean parents who work for him can take the holidays off. Contrary to what some people might think, he adds, August is not a busy month gardening wise and he can get students to cover. The same applies to people with other caring responsibilities, such as sick parents.

He also matches parents up with gardening work which is not too far away so it is easy to get to and they can drop and pick up their children from school.

“It means they can focus on the job and not be worried that they'll be late or that they need to take time off,” he says. Another bonus is that they tend to be the regular gardener in their patch and that can bring more business in.

The result is happy employees who stay with him. Gardening normally has a very high turnover rate with many people not lasting more than three to four weeks. “Recruiting people can be very time-consuming,” says Martin. Only one person has resigned this year because they had taken on a lot of voluntary work. No-one else has left. Plus no-one has taken a day off sick in four years.

Planning ahead

The hours are reviewed every six months so employees can give him plenty of warning about whether they need to reduce their hours or increase them, whether that's for caring responsibilities or other things such as college courses. One gardener, for instance, does a college course one day a fortnight and another is starting a course and needs time off for exams. That means Martin can plan around them so any changes are the least disruptive possible to the business.

“The ability to plan ahead is really crucial,” he says.

It can be hard to get people to trust that he is serious. “I took on one lady and asked her if she wanted to work over half term. She asked me what I meant and I said I could get students to cover half term so she could have it off. I could see her thinking 'is this guy for real'. Usually people tell employers what they think they want to hear so if they are asked if they want to work over half term they would say yes and then end up annoyed that they were not with their kids so their minds wouldn't be on the job,” he says.

Staff are paid for the hours they work and this is spread evenly across the year, even if they work longer hours during some months and fewer in others. The annual hours work well for Martin since gardening is seasonal so he can have more workers at his disposal during busy periods.

The model is also adaptable so people can contact him at short notice to say if they need to take a few hours out one week which they will make up the following week. However, Martin admits that as the business has grown – it now has nine staff, including part- and full-timers, all of whom work annualised hours – organising people's hours has become more difficult and he is thinking of employing a contracts manager to deal with this.

But the growth has been very positive too. Many of the parents he employs come with extra skills which benefit his business. One had a business degree is giving advice on things like advertising; another is a website expert.

Several have no gardening experience and Martin hires someone to provide training twice a year which, he says, shows his staff he cares about their career development. The training days also allow staff to meet up. “Gardening can be an isolated job as people tend to work individually so it's good that they can meet up, swap tips and realise they are all being treated the same,” he says.





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