Teach First embraces families in all their diversity and says so upfront in its policies. The education charity had already changed its policies before Covid to reflect families of all shapes and sizes and the ‘moments that matter’ to individuals.
The organisation, which develops and supports teachers and leaders, also had a good flexible working culture. All of that helped them adapt well to the pandemic, but they have also reviewed these over the past year and made more changes – some temporary and some permanent – to ensure they are able to withstand the challenges the pandemic has presented.
The expansion of Teach First’s family policies pre-Covid is in part the result of the organisation’s own evolution over the past five years and the wider range of challenges employees have faced and in part due to its emphasis on employee engagement.
Teach First has various affinity groups – including a working families group – and an employee engagement forum which is made up of elected representatives and group chairs. It was clear that more specific support was needed and that family support had to embrace a wider range of issues. “Families don’t come in one standard form and the challenges they face can be fundamentally different,” says Jay Nash, Director of HR.
It brought in a carer’s policy and five days of paid carers’ leave, paid parental bereavement leave of at least four weeks and paid premature birth and neonatal care leave.
During the pandemic it has continued to benefit from strong staff feedback loops and has also conducted a series of Pulse surveys to keep in touch with how employees are feeling and what they need.
To respond to the pressures many were under due to caring responsibilities, it relaxed its core hours to maximise the flexibility of people’s working hours. It also reviewed its compassionate and bereavement leave policies and changed them permanently. And it enhanced its sick leave and emergency time off for dependents policies. Sick pay is offered for nine weeks on full pay followed by eight weeks on half pay and emergency time off for dependents was extended to one period of five days when schools were closed, followed by further blocks of two days fully paid.
Where previously Teach First used its compassionate leave policy to cover bereavements, it announced up to 10 days’ paid compassionate leave could be used to come to terms with a serious illness or injury for employees or family members (including if someone close to them is hospitalised with Covid-19) and it also made specific changes to its more general bereavement leave policies, covering loss of an immediate family member [20 days’ paid bereavement leave]; loss of a child under 18 [20 paid days]; and loss of an individual who is not immediate family member [up to 10 days’ paid bereavement leave]. It also piloted paying the membership fees for the childcare app ‘Bubble’ to provide extra childcare support.
In addition, in response to the second lockdown and parents struggling with homeschooling, it temporarily increased its parental leave policies. Due to the nature of the organisation – because Teach First receives public money – furlough was not an option for its employees so the organisation decided to implement its own internal furlough scheme by enhancing parental leave, which is normally unpaid, to the point where parents who can’t work due to homeschooling can be paid up to 50% of their wages of parents. Any leave had to be taken in weekly blocks up to a maximum of four weeks. This policy was in place until schools reopened.
Policies are vital, but culture is also important. A clear message was sent out that it is not about hours worked, but about outcomes and managers from the CEO down put out regular communications reinforcing the need for people to take regular breaks to preserve their mental wellbeing. Indeed, the whole organisation shut down for two weeks at Christmas [usually they shut for three days]. The additional leave did not come out of employees’ leave entitlement. “We gave people an extra four days off and that was really important,” says Kate Wiggins, Head of Employee Experience and Development. “It allowed people to shut off entirely, not having to look at emails and knowing they’d have none to come back to.”
Teach First also sent clear messages about leave allowances to ensure people took at least the minimum and earlier on in the pandemic they created an additional ‘Teach First Bank Holiday’ in July – a day when everyone would be off at the same time. Leaders also role modelled and promoted flexible working and the working families group provided peer to peer support.
Lydia Barry, as HR Business Partner, liaises with the working families affinity group which is very visible across the organisation. It set up a Teams channel when all work went remote and posted advice on a range of issues, including coping mechanisms. The group celebrated diverse families during Work Life Week and realised that parents needed specialist support, for instance, information about looking after teenagers or about baby loss or being a single parent so it brought in external experts to talk about the issues.
The group also provided feedback on new family-related policies and spread awareness of them. Lydia acts as a bridge between parents and HR and ensures communications are joined up and consistent and underpinned by a culture of trust.
Kate says trust has gone up significantly during the pandemic and employee engagement has been rising steadily over the past two years.
Another important factor when it comes to family support is the organisation’s agile culture which was introduced around six years ago. There is an explicit agile working policy and website and agile working is openly acknowledged during the recruitment process. New joiners also get immediate access to affinity groups to give them the support they need. All Teach First’s family friendly policies are published openly on their external website. “Nothing is hidden. We want people to make informed choices,” says Jay.
Kate says many people work different patterns and that even within agile working people can flex their hours. During the pandemic, Teach First has also introduced an opt-in allowance of £26 a month to help cover any increased costs employees may have working from home during the winter months.
Mental wellbeing has also been a major factor during the pandemic. In the first lockdown there was a big focus on zoom social events and more organised central events and regular communications. This has continued, but for the second lockdown there was more emphasis on mental health. Teach First has a network of over 60 mental health first aiders and offers mental health awareness training for its managers as well as access to an employee assistance programme.
Recently it also announced that it would be allowing employees four wellbeing days a year on a permanent basis. This applies whether people work full or part-time. The aim is to provide designated time-off for people to recharge and get in the right headspace for work without having to plan, justify or explain it. It has to be taken in single days and not in lieu of sick leave.
For Lydia all these policies and practice are about enabling people to bring their whole self to work. She says: “It is all about being inclusive and about well being so people can feel they are able to be themselves at work.”
*Interviews and case studies of all the winners of the Top Employer Awards will be published in a Best Practice Report in early May. Watch this space for more information on how to get a copy.