Flexibility with a fizz: Listening groups for mums returning to work

listening groups for mums returning to work


Coca-Cola Enterprises have introduced listening groups for mums returning to work in order to understand better what the issues they face are. Catherine Kirkland for CCE spoke to workingmums.co.uk about the company’s diversity initiatives.

How do you address the issues which affect women returning to work after having children? For Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd, you start by finding out what women who have done it think. After rolling out a survey across Europe in 2008 to find out why there were not more female senior managers in the company, CCE decided to set up listening groups which allow women returning from maternity leave to voice their concerns. One key issue which came up in the survey was concern around asking for flexible working and the impact it would have on their careers. Another was how much things can change in a company if you take a year’s maternity leave.

“It can be very daunting,” says Catherine Kirkland, European Diversity Manager at Coca-Cola Enterprises Ltd. She says that hearing mothers tell of the emotional rollercoaster of going back to work had really brought the issues home to senior managers.

The listening groups are part of a whole toolkit for managers which the company has established to raise awareness about the issues around balancing work and family life. It includes maternity coaches – women within the company who have been there and done it and who can offer emotional support and advice to others. CCE have had lots of people volunteering to coach, but Kirkland says they need to raise awareness on the part of returning mums so they know the support is there for them. She is working on building up a range of case studies to show how the coaching system operates.


The toolkit states explicitly that, because a woman has chosen to come back to work part time, it does not mean she wants to put her career on hold. “Our survey showed that women were in fact more engaged when they came back part time. They were willing to succeed in their job and to make a difference,” says Kirkland. “They feel they have a lot to prove that it was the right decision to let them work part time and they want to deliver.”

She adds that by providing the kind of support the toolkit delivers the company is “investing in the future”. “These women have a lot of knowledge and experience. It is vital to nurture their talent and develop their skills for the future.” If women want to do longer hours when their children grow older, Kirkland says this is always a possibility.

CCE offers a full range of flexible working to all staff where the business needs allow. The sales force, for instance, are mainly home-based which means they can juggle their time better between home and family life, says Kirkland. Many staff have informal arrangements where they leave early to pick up children and then log on in the evening to do admin and catch up on their hours. Kirkland says that, although the official figures on flexible working show only 6% of its 4,600-strong workforce work part time this is a vast underestimate.

She reckons around 1,000 have some form of flexibility in their working life. The numbers of formal requests for flexible working have grown in recent years. In 2003, when the legislation on requesting flexible working first came in there were 16 requests. Last year there were 115 new requests and so far this year there have been 72 new requests.

Part of the reason for the relatively low number of requests is that a significant part of CCE’s workforce work in manufacturing and work on a shift pattern. However, there is a degree of flexibility about this. Kirkland cites cases where people have swapped shifts because of childcare needs.

She admits that men are less likely to request flexible working, but says this is changing, particularly in couples where women are the main earners. Most who do request flexible working usually want flexi-time so they can start earlier or later.

Kirkland thinks the Government’s new policy of allowing dads to share the second six months of maternity leave could boost the numbers who subsequently request flexible working since they will have become more used to sharing the childcare. She adds that CCE offers all employees the ability to buy extra holidays which they can pay back over the whole year so that the impact on their salary does not come all in one hit. This can be great for people with caring responsibilities as they can spend more time with their families.

Kirkland says she is always looking to raise awareness about the company’s flexible working policy and adds that members of the listening group are hoping to broadcast videoclips of people working flexibly in the company at local conferences later in the year. These will include interviews with managers and staff about how flexible working works for them.


Kirkland herself works mainly from home and travels from there around Europe. She has regular conference calls and also uses ‘live meetings’ a programme which allows her to share powerpoint presentations online. “I am happy with the balance I have,” she says.

One of her recently completed projects has been to interview senior women in the company about how they got to the post they are in today. Next year CCE is proposing to have a review of the company’s flexible work policy across Europe. CCE has to operate within the laws of each individual European country it works in so things like its maternity policy varies in accordance with the legislation. There is, however, says Kirkland, a lot that the different countries can learn from each other. “We can all learn from looking at good practice,” she says.

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