Karen Firth started in the AA as a call centre worker so she could get the flexibility she needed. Over the course of the last 11 years she has worked her way up by working flexibly and now manages the call centre. She spoke to Workingmums.co.uk.
When Karen Firth had her daughter Grace, she went back to work during the evenings as a call handler for the AA. Nineteen years later she is the head of site at the very same call centre in Cheadle and her experience of working flexibly has proved a huge bonus as a manager.
Firth, whose background was in the travel industry, worked from five to eight in the evening from when her daughter was 18 months old until she was four.
“The AA were very flexible while my daughter was growing up and allowed me to change my hours as she grew,” she says. Once her daughter was at preschool she worked 9.30-12.30 three days a week. When she started school she extended her hours and worked 9.45am to 2.45pm.
“People have asked me why I have stayed at the AA so long,” she says, “and their flexibility and willingness to let me change my hours to fit in with my daughter is why. I always felt I could take her to school and pick her up from school.”
While her daughter was at school the opportunity came up for her to be a team manager. At one point she did the team manager job as a job share with a women whose daughter was slightly older than Grace. She worked 9.30 to 2pm and the other woman worked from 2.6pm. They had a half hour handover every day. “It was the best run team in the place. Our manager had two of us and benefited from both of our different strengths. The staff appreciated both of us for our different input,” says Karen.
She did this role for a few years before moving on to be part-time team manager of a part-time team. She still had as many people to manage as a full-time manager and had to do the same number of one to one sessions. “Luckily, as a mother I was good at time management,” she said, adding that she believes many part-timers work very productively putting in five days work in three.
While she was a team manager Karen split from her husband and was a single parent for four years before meeting her second husband who she has been married to for nine years. She says that having a supportive work environment helped immensely, as did having her parents nearby to help out with holidays.
When Grace was around 11 Karen went full time.
She now manages a call centre of around 1,000 people and Grace is working in the webchat team. She says the AA's flexibility and family friendly policies on parental leave have helped retain staff. Many of the people who were in her part-time team, for instance, are still there. Several of her call centre managers work flexibly. One works three days; another works four days. She says she is keen to support employees who are coming back to work after having children and knows that in return they put in extra effort and are more loyal. “I hope it helps them that they have a boss who knows what it is like being a working mum, she says. “If I am doing staff briefings I can say I have done what they have done.”
She adds: “I never thought I would end up running the place. One of the men who reports to me is someone I used to report to. In staff inductions when people ask about promotion my name is usually mentioned. It shows the AA does its best to promote internally wherever possible.”
The AA is one of the exhibitors at Workingmums.co.uk's LIVE event in Manchester, a one-stop shop on all things to do with flexible and family friendly working.