Shared parental leave and how to embed an agile working culture were the key topics at this year’s Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Awards.
Keynote speaker at the event was Wendy Hallett, MBE, Founder and MD of Hallett Retail and a member of the Women’s Business Council.
She described her own personal experiences as a working mum and as a business owner as well as her work on the Women’s Business Council.
Wendy said she started her working life on the Top Shop graduates scheme and worked very flexibly after her first child was born. However, when her second child came along she transferred to a job share position at head office and felt that her new manager struggled with flexible working. She was made redundant after nine months and couldn’t find a part-time job at her level of experience so she turned to consultancy. Her retail business developed out of this work.
“It has become a significant business, with around 450 employees, but it was not planned that way,” she said. “I just wanted flexible work while I was bringing up my children.” Her husband was not able to work flexibly so could not help her with childcare, but once the business grew he left his job and came on board.
Wendy described how these personal experiences had given her “an absolute passion for supporting women in my own business and in the wider community” through her work for the Women’s Business Council. The Council promotes the “overwhelming business case” for maximising women’s contribution to economic growth, Wendy said. Some 2.4 million women were not working who wanted to and a further 1.3 million wanted to work longer hours. The Council had spoken to hundreds of representatives from women’s group and the business world and made recommendations for all stages in women’s careers, from starting out, particularly encouraging girls into careers in STEM, to the middle stage where childcare was a big issue to the later stages where elder care responsibilities and redundancy were big issues. Wendy has focused a lot on women and enterprise, given her background. She said the Council’s work had brought action in the form of more grants for childminders and a government champion for older workers. The Council’s focus for 2015 is on women in enterprise, the gender pay gap, careers advice and how to use men as agents of change.
Wendy also addressed her own business practice. She said she had tried to practise what she preached, despite there being some challenges, such as some internal resistance to flexible working initiatives. In some instances, she had had to use the owner card and push through an initiative, such as “stretch days” with more flexible start and finish times, she said. Her company allowed all workers to request flexible working, but stipulated that it was the responsibility of both employee and employer to make any arrangement agreed work. Being clear about what was expected was vital, she said. The company offers flexible working, including homeworking and stretch days, and people can buy additional holidays. Wendy said she would not let employees sell holiday as she was adamant that everyone needed five weeks off. She spoke about taking on two very disadvantaged girls on an apprenticeship scheme and how she was determined to give the girls “more options” despite the challenges.
She said that it was important for her to be a strong role model for flexible working. She had never apologised for working flexibly and continued to have Fridays off, even though her children were now 17 and 20. This allowed her to balance her working life better as she often works very long days. A year and a half ago she acquired a warehouse business and has been trying to merge two very different cultures. When she turned up at the warehouse for the first time, she was called “darling” by one of the workers. She had not complained at the time, but she noted that she has not been called darling since. “There’s a long way to go to get it to where the other part of the business is, but it’s a fantastic opportunity to introduce things that we have done on the other side of the business,” she said.
Her keynote was preceded by a speech by Gillian Nissim, founder of Workingmums.co.uk, who outlined the aims of the awards – to spread best practice and inspire other employers. She pointed out that the judges were impressed by how flexible working was being implemented across industry sectors and by how strong this year’s entries had been in the SME categories, bucking the idea that SMEs found flexible working particularly difficult to offer. She said: “Every year we are struck by the range of policies and practices being adopted by organisations to promote diversity and flexible working. But in most recent years what has struck us is the way such policies and practices are spreading to sectors which have proven particularly challenging for women. This year is no different. We have organisation from the rail sector, engineering and law – traditionally male dominated and, in some cases, such as law, renowned for an unfamily friendly long hours culture. This is encouraging evidence that things are shifting across industry.”
The event, which included networking opportunities before and after the awards ceremony, ended with a Q & A session, chaired by Top Employer Award judge Jennifer Liston-Smith, Director of Coaching & Consultancy at My Family Care. On the panel were judges Gillian Nissim, Andy Lake, editor of Flexibility.co.uk, and Clare Kelliher, Professor of Work and Organisation at Cranfield School of Management, as well as Wendy Hallett and Emma Nabb, HR manager, Programmes & Support Diversity & Inclusion, BAE Systems.
Issues raised included shared parenting, the extension of flexible working and how small businesses can grow while retaining a flexible model.
Emma Nabb said she felt shared parental leave was more about encouraging cultural change than making specific policy changes. This included making those who take up SPL visible through internal communications. Wendy Hallett agreed that policy changes can only go so far. “It is absolutely vital that businesses encourage men to feel comfortable about asking for shared parental leave,” she said. This could be done by, for instance, having senior role models who were seen to be taking it. The London School of Economics and Political Science, which won the Best for Dads award, said they encouraged dads to take paternity leave and work flexibly by creating a culture where it was okay for them to ask for those things. Jennifer Liston-Smith added that dads often thought policies and benefits labelled as for parents were aimed at mums and said any support offered had to be specifically targeted at them as dads.
On the extension of flexible working earlier this year, Dr Kelliher said that, although many companies already offered the right to request flexible working to all employees, the new legislation legitimised asking for it if you were not a parent.
Emma Nabb said the legislation had not in itself had much impact at BAE Systems. The largest impact had been from the communications work done by the company to change the work culture to a more family friendly one where core hours had been reduced to 10am-2pm and the managing director had made video casts encouraging staff to work flexibly. “It is more through a conscious effort to drive culture change that legislation that we have noticed a difference,” she said.
Andy Lake said SMEs had a lot to teach larger organisations about flexible working and added that it was important to keep things flexible and as virtual as possible as businesses grew. He said many organisations were still adopting a reactive approach to flexible working based on individual applications and then worrying when they couldn’t get it all to work. They were missing a strategic approach, he said, and were stuck in what he called “inflexible flexibility”. Many also had flexible working policies which were nearly always framed negatively. Karen Ovenden from Hireserve, which won an SME award, said rigid policies could “strangle innovation”.
Wendy Hallett said her business reserved Mondays and Tuesdays for internal meetings and generally only in the middle section of the day. She said meetings were more effective that way as people were more engaged when they were not rushing in first thing or tired after a long day.
She argued strongly for SMEs not to lose sight of family friendly working once they expanded. “If you are passionate about it hang on to the bit that makes it work and that, for me, is the people who work in the business. If you stay close to the people in your organisation as you grow you will keep that culture,” she said. Macmillan Williams Solicitors, which won Overall Top Employer, echoed this. They did not have a written flexible working policy, although they were having to develop one, but they were keen to keep it loose enough to enable a culture which was holistic enough to embrace different needs and did not take a one size fits all approach.
Dr Kelliher said it was important that organisational needs for flexibility matched individual needs rather than flexible working swinging too much in favour of one or the other.
The panel were asked if employers could make a stronger business case for employing working mums because of the additional skills they had developed through having children and balancing work and family life and because businesses needed women on board since they often reflected a large part of their customer base. Wendy Hallett said that if someone had been a good worker before they went on maternity leave it was very likely that they would return an even better one because they had to be so organised and focused both at home and at work. “We should do more to make that case,” she said.
The judges were asked to give their tips for greater diversity and innovation in flexible working. Andy Lake said it was important to focus on the business benefits and to make flexible working part of normal working culture. Emma Nabb felt the engagement of senior leadership was vital. Dr Kelliher said it was important to actively challenge resistance to flexible working within an organisation and Wendy Hallett emphasised the need to spread good practice. “If we all convert just one other business in our sector to the business benefits of flexible working we will have doubled the numbers,” she said.
*Read Maya Middlemiss of Saros Research’s blog on the debate.