Making a virtue out of flexible working

Andrew Smart set up Virtual Sales Team five years ago and says flexible working has helped him expand and grow his business. He talks to Workingmums.co.uk about winning the Workingmums.co.uk Top Employer Award for Talent Attraction.

When Andrew Smart started Virtual Sales Team Limited just over five years ago he was a senior business development manager at a company owned by News International and was facing a daily three- to four-hour commute from Northampton to Gerrards Cross. He says he was “barely seeing” his 18-month-old daughter. His wife was just about to give birth to his second daughter. “I thought something has got to change or I will miss them growing up,” he says.

He had noticed that many call centres were full of 21 year olds who tended to move on very quickly and could be “a bit unreliable”. “When you brought clients on tours there would be a different team of people there after three months,” he says. He realised that if he employed part-time people who were looking for a work life balance he could take on parents with lots of life and work skills who were reliable, sophisticated and flexible and clients would have continuity of service.

He set up Virtual Sales Team which identifies new business opportunities for clients. The organisation's flexible working model has proved his own greatest business opportunity and his commitment to it resulted in the company being awarded the Workingmums.co.uk's Top Employer Award for Talent Attraction earlier this month.

Virtual Sales Team goes out of its way to advertise and promote its flexible model to new recruits, setting out clearly in its job advertisements that people can negotiate the hours they want to work.

Smart says that none of his staff has previously worked in a call centre. However, they all have tonnes of other relevant business and life experience. Eighty-five per cent of the workforce is female. Most of them are mums. Smart says they may lack confidence if they haven't worked for a few years, for instance, they may feel rusty about office technology, but he adds that within a couple of weeks or so “everything comes flooding back”.

Staff are offered short trial periods, starting on eight to 12 hours a week, so they can “soak up” the environment. After the trial period, Smart has a chat with them to find out how they are getting on and then, if everything is ok, they are offered a permanent contract and can choose the hours that suit them.

Smart says many choose to do longer hours during term time and can go down to minimum hours of eight to 12 hours a week during the holidays. He adds that the flexibility works both ways. If the company needs more hours then it can put out an email request for more shifts. “It works for us commercially as there are often peaks and troughs,” he says, “and it gives us the flexibility to manage our workloads.”

Timesheets

Staff fill in timesheets so there is no guilt about taking time off for things like GP visits as shifts can be rearranged. Most of them work from the office, although homeworking is offered in emergencies, such as during last year's harsh winter. “Most people want to get away from home,” says Smart. “It gives them some me time and something the family is not involved in.”

He is reviewing homeworking and seeing whether managers in particular can benefit from doing more of it for report writing and other activities that it might suit.

The most popular shift is 9.30 to 1.30 which means staff can drop off and pick up their children. This can create a bit of a logjam in the morning so Smart is keen to encourage people to do more afternoon shifts.

All the organisations' managers started on the phones and have worked their way up. Often when their children have grown a little they want to take on more responsibility. One senior manager, who had worked at Nationwide Anglia as an events manager in charge of a large team, had started on the phones when her daughter was young because she needed flexible hours. She has moved up to become client services manager, looking after all the company's clients, and is still working flexible hours, including fewer hours during holidays.

Smart says small companies like his cannot often afford the calibre of manager he has on a full-time wage so flexible working means he can get high quality skills and experience without having to pay large salaries. His marketing manager used to work for Mercedes, for instance, and left because she could not get the flexibility she needed. At Virtual Sales Team she works around 20 hours a week, but is on her Blackberry at home when needed.

Smart adds: “People who work a four-hour shift are fully focused. People who work eight hours are usually only productive for six and a half of those hours at most.”

He says the company is doing well on the back of its working model. It has grown in every year of the recession and Smart has big plans for the next two years – he wants to treble the company's size. “I have the right team in the right position and all of them have some capacity to spare if we need it," he says.

He recognises that working mums have particular life skills which are useful in business, such as networking, independence and time keeping. “Some of the work involves targeted cold calling,” says Smart. “It can be quite hard, but the women say compared to having a baby and bringing up a toddler it's a breeze,” he laughs.

He adds that staff retention is high and says it makes commercial sense to keep the knowledge in the business. What's more, the workplace is a supportive environment. If people or their partners are sick, people help each other out. “It's like a family,” he says. “I've never seen that before in any other places I've worked and there's no office politics as people are very focused on the job they are doing and they leave their baggage at the front door.”





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