The flexible force

The Metropolitan Police have one of the most flexible work policies despite the complex nature of their working patterns. Mandy Garner finds out how it works.

The Metropolitan police is not perhaps the organisation which you would expect to be leading the way in innovative practice around flexible working. The complicated shift patterns that officers work make it one of the most complex of organisations in terms of human resources. But it won the Working Families and NSPCC Family Friendly Award in 2006 and has continued to make strides in promoting policies which make it easier for families to balance work and home life.

One of the areas it is looking at is childcare. Sarah Nunn, Deputy Childcare Co-ordinator and Work/Life Balance Adviser has negotiated discounts with around 300 nurseries. The Met also operates a voucher scheme and is the first public service to offer an emergency back-up childcare scheme operated by My Family Care. “For an organisation like ours which operates 24/7,” says Sarah Nunn, Deputy Childcare Coordinator and Work Life Balance Adviser, “police officers and police staff can get called into work at short notice or have a breakdown in childcare arrangements.” Employees have to register in advance and then they can ring the service any time and access childminders, nurseries and nannies at the last minute. They can take their children along to the nurseries involved in the scheme after they register so they are not totally unfamiliar with them. The downside of the scheme is that it is quite expensive and the Met does not subsidise it. “People have to work out how much they need the childcare,” says Nunn, adding that quite a few employees are registered with the scheme, but she says they can be a bit reluctant to leave their child with someone they don’t know.
 
Uphill struggle
She says it was “a huge uphill struggle” to change perceptions about flexible working within the organisation. “Some managers said it would not work,” she says. The force has developed a toolkit for managers showing that flexible working has to be a two-way process. “There has to be compromise and good communication,” says Nunn. Employees do not have to give a reason why they are applying for flexible working, but they are informed that, although they have a right to ask for a particular work pattern, the organisation may not be able to accommodate it for justifiable business reasons. At first, she says, managers were afraid to turn down a request and operational effectiveness was affected in some areas. But now managers are far more confident in dealing with flexible working applications and ensuring that the business can accommodate a work pattern. During the process Managers will talk to colleagues and see if work patterns are realistically achievable and what impact they might have on the team. If a request is unworkable, managers will look at ways of finding a compromise. Managers themselves are also working flexibly, for example, doing compressed hours. Some workers choose compressed hours to avoid five days a week of commuting.
That way, says Sarah Nunn, they have more energy when they are at work. Those who have children who work flexibly also work in a more concentrated way as they don’t have to worry so much about childcare issues. “It’s a win win situation,” says Nunn. The organisation also stipulates that all flexible working agreements are reviewed at least once a year in case anyone is struggling, teams are having problems or units change the way they are working.
 
Flexible work
The Met police offer all types of flexible working including part-time work, compressed hours, annualised hours, term time working, job shares, flexi time, variable shift working or self-rostering [whereby teams work out for themselves which hours they need covered]. A significant number of men choose to work compressed hours rather than other forms of flexible working because they are still paid full time. Once men realised that flexible working is for everyone and not just those who have caring responsibilities, the policy was far more popular and supported by the majority of police officers and police staff. Homeworking is not used very much because of the nature of the work being done, but when it is used it is mainly for report writing.
The Met also has a programme aimed at helping women to get promoted. The Encompass programme aims to give women the confidence they need to go for promotion through, for example, mentoring and assertiveness training. They are keen to promote women to make units more representative of the community., but Nunn It is important to remember that whilst flexible working in specialist units is available, work patterns must be realistic and fit in with operational demands, for example, it may not be possible to do surveillance work and clock off at 2.30pm. You might instead work part-time but choose to do two long days in a week instead of five short ones, depending on the job you are on. Flexibility is needed on all sides.
 
Work life balance reps
Ten per cent of the 50,000-strong workforce now work flexibly. Last year the Met police introduced work life balance representatives on every borough and department. Employees can approach theses representatives for advice and information on work/life balance issues. The Work/Life Balance Team also offer training seminars on new developments and will provide presentations on flexible working to areas where there have been any difficulties in implementing this policy. It is far more effective to provide these presentations locally as it demonstrates best practice which enables managers to correctly implement the policy. Another recent innovation was the extension of their carers policy. Previously carers could take five days leave each year for caring responsibilities. Now those with multiple carer needs can have up to 10 days leave a year. “We are looking all the time to see where we can make improvements,” says Nunn.


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