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The Food Standards Agency has won the workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working for the way it has embedded a flexible culture through allowing employees to trial different ways of working first.
The Food Standards Agency is at the vanguard of government departments when it comes to taking a broad approach to staff engagement and development based on a pro-technology, smart, collaborative approach.
A couple of years ago it was facing a number of challenges around attraction and retention and staff engagement. Additional concerns included reducing their environmental footprint. The FSA’s CEO was keen to champion organisational development – at the time a fairly new discipline – in a more holistic way and to take a proactive approach to addressing staff engagement scores. The FSA pulled together a team from across the organisation to think about organisational development and very soon realised that they needed to think more broadly about what staff wanted in terms of when and where they worked and that this required a whole programme of work to support it.
They found that, in many cases, there was no need for people to be in the office every day. They also looked at what times of day worked best for different members of staff. The aim was to get the best out of everyone and provide the best service to consumers through smart working. For instance, some people worked best from very early in the morning. The standard flexible system in the civil service involved staff having to log in at certain core hours, but the FSA felt they could do better. The fact that they did has earned them a workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working.
The FSA did a lot of research, looking at what the best organisations locally and across the world were doing and at other Government departments. Following extensive consultation with staff, they came up with their Our Ways of Working [OWOW] Strategy which involved a different way of managing staff. Throughout the process clear internal communications were vital.
The FSA invested a lot of time and effort into the HR processes that sit behind the strategy to ensure it worked for all the different areas and teams that come under the FSA. They also completely revamped their IT offering – everyone now has a phone and laptop and they invested in the Office 365 suite which enables remote working. A lot of calls are now done via Skype, including a monthly managers call with the CEO. Recently the FSA held a call with 190 managers on Skype about Brexit. Managers could feed in questions and get answers during the call.
After consulting with staff and coming up with their strategy, the FSA launched a two-month Give it a go period where staff could experiment and trial different working patterns in conversation with their team. The incident response team, for instance, worked entirely from home. “The sky did not fall in,” says Maria Jennings, Director of Regulatory Compliance, People and Northern Ireland.
She says remote working was very popular. Previously only a few people had worked from home and they were often isolated. Since the experiment, significantly more people are working from home and that has changed the dynamic with office-based employees having to make more of an effort to keep in touch rather than vice versa. With flexible hours people were less stressed, knowing, for instance, that if their son had a dental appointment that they could catch up the hours later and that no-one was checking as long as the work got done.
“It works on trust and enabling people to have adult to adult conversations,” says Maria. The result has been increased productivity. “People feel they have a duty to give back to the organisation as the organisation is treating them so well. This is particularly the case for carers. The system has completely transformed their lives,” says Maria. “Lots of parents can now pick up their kids from school. It’s a very simple thing, but it is completely transformative.”
The Give it a go experiment also addressed flexible working sceptics who thought flexible working couldn’t work. Some managers were worried about accountability, for instance, says Maria. Throughout the two months the company did regular surveys. They also have an annual engagement survey which they have been doing for several years and using to track key indicators for the last four years.
The result of the experimentation period was the development of a new People Offer, consisting of three new contracts for workers. “We wanted to keep it simple,” says Maria, “so people understood what they were signing up to. There is always a lot of anxiety when people are changing contracts. We wanted to be open and clear. We involved the union and made sure everyone knew what was going on.”
The percentage of staff on each contract is: 23% home-enabled, 26% multi-location, 51% office/site based. Approximately half of the office/site-based employees carry out regulatory inspection of meat plants so are required to work out of third party premises. OWOW has resulted in only 32% of non-operational staff remaining solely office-based.
The contract options are designed to serve all the needs of staff. For instance, the site-based offering involves working at least four days a week from a fixed office and can be good for, for instance, London-based staff who live in shared accommodation or have smaller homes where working from home is more difficult.
Multi-location workers can choose a base office and then work from another office the rest of the week or from home. Home-enabled staff are limited to travelling just one day a week to another location for work or 50 times in a year. These are to account for regular face to face meetings with managers and learning and development sessions. “There has to be clear blue water between the different options,” says Maria.
People who work remotely no longer have core hours and can choose the hours that suit them best. The FSA also increased its carry over limits from two to four standard days and credit leave increased to four standard days in each accounting period.
Individuals choose from the three contracts according to which suits them best. They do this in negotiation with their manager. Unless there is a strong business reason why they can’t have it, they should be granted what they want. There is also an appeals process and an independent review after two months. Staff can ask to change their contract twice a year, although most have not done so. Around half the FSA’s staff work in abattoirs and meat plants and have to be on site from early in the morning. Maria says they are very clear about the demands of particular jobs, but provide workers with the tools they need to work more effectively and stay more connected to the organisation. There are also opportunities for those working on site to do non site-based projects and there is some flexibility over things like doctor’s appointments and there is emergency cover.
The performance review process has also been reformed. Rather than having to wait for a formal annual appraisal, more information performance conversations with managers are scheduled every six weeks so any problems don’t build up. “We aim to nip them in the bud,” says Maria. “It is more informal with less paperwork. The value is in the open conversation with the person about how they feel, what their ambitions are and what training and support they need.”
Line managers have also been trained to support remote working and there is a strong induction process which includes an extra day for line managers on expectations around the work culture and how to have open conversations about performance issues. In addition the FSA has been building its employee networks. Maria is a senior champion in the parental support network, for instance. It provides mentoring support for parents coming back from parental leave, but also offers advice around broader parenting issues.
One offshoot of the OWOW strategy is reduced office costs. The lease on the Agency’s central London office was due for renewal a couple of years later and the Government has been encouraging departments out of London. However, the FSA still needed a core team in the capital to engage with other Government departments and have moved office recently. Because of the OWOW programme it has made £1.65m pa savings, with a total anticipated lifecycle saving of £12.7m.
Maria says the agency’s flexibility means it is ready for some of the HR challenges presented by Brexit and that it provides an attractive recruitment package. The FSA is including that flexibility in its external communications about new jobs and in its job descriptions.
The new way of working is being tracked through analysis of and comparison with the Civil Service annual people survey and shows increased engagement year on year, up from 58 to 64% over three years. To evaluate the success of remote working the FSA also conducted a survey specifically about working from home. Three quarters said they were more likely to stay working at the FSA as a result while 69% said their job satisfaction increased. 80% said they felt more productive when working from home. Significantly, female staff with childcare responsibilities who are home-based and multi-site are most engaged. Recruitment and retention of female staff is also a positive side effect: 63% of new recruits in 2017/18 were female and increased progression of female staff through the organisation has resulted in a narrowing of its gender pay gap at higher grades.
The FSA can break it down to team level and check where there are any problems. “We’ve had amazing feedback,” says Maria. “It’s a fantastic new offer to help attract and retain staff.”
The FSA says the programme has helped normalise different ways of working. It states: “OWOW has created a culture where our people are enabled and trusted to fit work around their life, rather than it always being the other way around.”
*Paul Moody, Engagement and Reward Manager, FSA, [left] pictured receiving the workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working with Karen Orr – Director of People & Engagement at QA who sponsored the award.