A flexible culture where everyone benefits

Workplace culture is key to retaining working parents. Workingmums.co.uk spoke to eight parents at Imperial College London’s ICT department to find out how a positive culture is self-perpetuating.


ICT is changing and some employers are leading the way, doing all they can to attract and, importantly, keep women.

Imperial College London’s ICT department is one of them and it has the policies and culture to not only attract and retain mums, but to support the dads they employ to bolster equality both at work and at home. A conversation with many of its current parents shows how much this approach is valued. At its core is flexible working and an empathetic, family-friendly attitude, something that also helped the various teams adapt to pandemic and post-pandemic working.

Not only do most employees in the department only have to come into the university for two days a week, including in most cases an anchor day,  but it has an on-site nursery, a flexible culture and many other benefits and family discounts in addition to being next to London’s biggest museums and Hyde Park. Different teams have different anchor days when everyone is on-site, enabling in-person meetings to be held, although some teams, such as AV, can function differently because they are needed in more often or work on different campus sites.

Those who work in the department say that the culture at Imperial is backed by senior leaders who understand the pressures of managing families alongside work. Several of the parents workingmums.co.uk spoke to have management responsibilities and they say the culture they benefited from means they are willing to give some of that flexibility back, to pass it down the line.

Brendan Whitfield, Head of Cross Functional Products, says: “That culture permeates the workplace and I feel that I can be flexible with colleagues because of the flexibility that was given to me. It trickles down.” Michele Barritt, Head of HR & Finance Product Line, simply adds: “It has made me a better manager.”

Michele [pictured right with her children] has been at Imperial for around five years and is a single mum of two grown-up children who both live with her. Her son was born prematurely with a rare genetic disorder which means he has a lot of medical appointments to attend. She recalls the early days before he was diagnosed when her son had a heart murmur and hearing loss and was in and out of different hospitals, including Great Ormond Street. Michele went back to work part time when he was three months old to give herself ‘a bit of sanity’. Although the appointments are fewer now, Michele still accompanies her son to appointments now. The family-friendly environment at Imperial was one of her key reasons for joining. “It felt like the kind of organisation where I would get support if I needed it,” she says.

Brendan [pictured left] agrees. He has two sons aged four and two and his wife works four and a half days a week. He started at Imperial when his oldest son was just six months old.  His previous employer was not very flexible and turned down his request to do compressed hours with no reason given. “It was a kind of inverted sexism. The general expectation seemed to be that my wife would sort out childcare,” he says, adding:  “It felt like any flexibility given came with strings attached.” Working at Imperial has been completely different. He can do flexi hours and can make up the time if there is a problem at home, which is very useful as the family don’t have relatives nearby.

Caroline Carter, Head of Audio Visual, says that family-friendly approach is just as true for elder care as it is for childcare. She cares for her dad, who was himself a researcher at Imperial and now has Parkinson’s Disease and has encountered the same understanding and flexibility as she did with her children. Her children are aged 14 and nearly 16 and she has been at Imperial for 21 years. Both her children went to the on-site nursery and the family used the car park which was free at the time. 

They also benefited from nursery vouchers, which the Government has now ended, which now only reduced the nursery fees they paid, but also cut the bill for swimming lessons and other activities. Caroline [pictured right] doesn’t have a typical working pattern due to the nature of her work and, although she comes in most days of the week, she can work from home if she needs to and says she is supported by “an amazing team”. 

The flexible, team-based approach to working also helps returners. Tania Bozinovksa is a Network Infrastructure Lead and her children are 19 and 20. She has been working at Imperial for nine years, having previously worked in telecomms. After her second child was born Tania took a 10-year career break during which she worked for herself. She says she was immediately made to feel really welcome on her return to the workplace. “It was so great that no-one batted an eyelid that I had not done this kind of job for some years,”  she says. “My confidence was low. I felt no-one would want me, but that welcome put paid to all my insecurities.” 

Tania [pictured left] lost her partner just after starting at the university and says its flexible, supportive working environment made a huge difference to her as a single mum dealing with bereaved children. “I have always felt it is ok to ask to have time off if I need it,” she says. “Not having family nearby means you have to rely on the community around you. I have always felt that people at Imperial have my back.”  

Others add examples of how flexibility and family friendly policies have helped them face particular challenges.

Lalitha Kambhammettu [pictured right] joined Imperial in 2014 from a job in technical development in the private sector which involved travelling a lot to client locations. She was keen for the stability of being in one place. In her first few months at Imperial, her first son got ill a lot, but Imperial allowed her to work from home as much as she needed to.

After her second son was born in 2018 the couple took Shared Parental Leave so her husband was with her and was able to support her through her recovery from a Caesarean section.

Michael Bessel, AV Support Lead, meanwhile, talks about how the flexibility at Imperial helped his family get through Covid. His wife is a teacher and they had their second child during the pandemic.

Her job was less flexible than his and, although she has changed jobs, it continues to be so Michael [whose children are pictured left] is able to work around the family’s needs. He says he has never once had a request for flexibility refused. 

Imperial offers other benefits to families apart from a supportive culture. In addition to the on-site subsidised nursery and priority parking for those parents with children in the nursery, Imperial a childcare portal where parents can enter their details and home location and be signposted to childcare and holiday and after school clubs in their area as well as emergency childcare. They can also speak to an expert about their childcare issues.  Other benefits include generous annual leave and the ability to buy more if you need it. The university closes down at Christmas and Easter, which means guaranteed family time for most and fewer childcare issues. In addition there is a parent resource group where parents can share their experiences, support each other and have a voice.

It is noticeable that many of the people workingmums spoke to in the ICT department have been there for several years, which is testament to its culture. Mark Carter, Head of Networks [pictured top], has been at Imperial for over 20 years and says that one of the major reasons he is still there is because it is “a very easy place to work if you have a family”. He has three children aged 11, eight and six and has benefited from the on-site subsidised nursery and priority parking, nursery vouchers and Shared Parental Leave for his last two children. The latter was 20 weeks on full pay which allowed him time to bond with his children from an early age. Mark was also on Tania’s interview panel and talks about how keen the team are to encourage returners who have the right attitude and experience. Much of the technical knowledge can be taught, he says.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Caroline Westbrook [pictured below left], Product Owner, who joined in January 2020 and spent just eight weeks in the office before lockdown intervened. She had worked flexibly before, but really values the flexi hours at Imperial so she can do the school run in the morning and her husband can pick up in the afternoon, cutting their wraparound care costs.

But what really swung her decision to join Imperial was the on-site gym and library. She can go to the gym or library in her lunch breaks. “I have no time to exercise in the mornings before work and in the evenings I am busy ferrying people about. I do a couple of classes in the gym a week or get a book out. I don’t have to schedule time in for myself. I can fit it into my working day,” she says. “It’s so unusual to work in a place which has such great on-site facilities.”

And because they are aimed at cost-conscious students they are reasonably priced too. Mark says he too regularly uses the swimming pool and goes for runs in Hyde Park. Caroline mentions adult education classes at lunchtime and lectures.

But what comes through most clearly is that all the benefits are embedded in a culture that makes all the difference to parents.  Michael speaks about an understanding that everyone looks after each other.  Mark says that the culture is “self-reinforcing”, with a virtuous circle created for working parents. “Given the choice, I would like to retire here,” adds Lalitha. “It is so welcoming and there is a sense that we all gain through helping each other.”

*Imperial College is one of WM People’s Top Employers. You can find out more about working from them here.

Comments [1]

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your Franchise Selection

Click the button below to register your interest with all the franchises in your selection

Request FREE Information Now

Your Franchise Selection

This franchise opportunity has been added to your franchise selection



Click the button below to register your interest with all the franchises in your selection

Request FREE Information Now

You may be interested in these similar franchises