The Food Standards Agency’s move to new flexible contracts has enabled employees with caring responsibilities to stay in post and develop their careers.
For Sabrina Roberts and Frances Hill the Food Standards Agency’s change to more flexible contracts has been a huge boon. Both note a dramatic change in their work life balance and say that, without the contracts they may have had to reduce their hours or leave the organisation.
What’s more, both feel able, if they wanted to, to progress in the FSA while working flexibly because it is so normalised. Indeed, Sabrina took a promotion when she returned from maternity leave and says she was only able to do so because of the new contract.
The FSA brought in three new contracts – home-enabled, multi-location and site-based – through its Our Ways of Working Strategy, which involved a consultation process, including a two-month Give it a go trial period. The initiative won it the 2019 workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for Innovation in Flexible Working.
Sabrina is a Senior Scientific Policy Officer and works within the food policy directorate on the regulation and policy side of food safety. She has been at the FSA for five years. When she first started she says people would apply to work from home on an ad hoc basis, but most, including her, didn’t. She did, however, compress her hours and that helped her to write up her PhD thesis.
Since the FSA introduced new flexible contracts, Sabrina has opted for one where she works two days from home and two days from the office and has Fridays off. She says this has had “a dramatic impact” and really makes a difference to her home and work life, given that she takes on most of the childcare duties because her partner works long hours.
On her two home days she can drop her son at nursery and pick him up. She has other arrangements on the two days she works from the office and spends Fridays with her son. Her son is nearly two and she has worked this way since returning from maternity leave. If she had not been able to work in this way and had faced the stress of commuting and getting to pick-ups on time four days a week, she thinks she would have had to reduce her hours or change her working pattern.
Frances [pictured] is a scientist, working in the chemical risk assessment unit. She has been at the FSA since 2003 and was working full time until her eldest daughter was born 10 years ago when she reduced to 25 hours a week. She says she was very lucky that her line manager at the time was very supportive about her going part time, having done similar herself.
With her new contract she does two days in the office and 1.5-two days at home. “The arrangement I had before was based on trust between me and my line manager. With the new contract I feel more secure as flexible working is part of the culture,” says Frances, whose daughters are aged 10 and six.
She likes being able to work both in the office and from home and says that that is her choice.
Working from home all week would not suit her. However, she says working from home part of the week gives her a break from a long four-hour a day commute and makes a big difference to her work life balance. “I can take the girls to school two days a week and that makes a considerable difference.
The girls could not do half the after-school activities they do if I was in the office all the time,” she says. Although her husband works relatively locally and picks up the girls on two days each week, she says that, like Sabrina, she takes on the main childcare role as his job is less flexible than hers.
If she hadn’t had the flexibility of her new contract Frances says she would probably have stayed at home or done a more local, non-science-based job. Being at home means she can flex her day and, for instance, go on a school trip in the middle part of the day and work around it. Sabrina agrees. We speak at 1pm and she has already almost done her day’s hours, having got up at 5am.
Both admit that working from home can lead to a blurring of the lines between work and home life and to a tendency to work out of hours, but they say the FSA is aware of the dangers and encourages employees to have proper breaks.
Although both women say some lingering sense of having to compensate as a parent for sickness and unexpected events remains, they feel that this is much diminished because everyone at the FSA has the ability to work flexibly. “It’s been 10 years since I started to work part time,” says Frances, “and I feel now that I do not have to justify myself any more. The culture is very different now.”