These boots are made for talking…about best practice

SME DUO scooped one of the Top Employer Awards for SMEs. Here we find out what it is that makes them a great example of good practice in flexible working and diversity.

“We are a small company with high aspirations. We cannot always afford the full-time experience that we would like, but we find that by offering flexible working we get people with masses of experience,” says Cat Travers, PR manager of DUO, winner of the Top Employer Award for larger SMEs [those with over 25 staff]. She says the boots retailer is “ever so excited” to have won and will be displaying their prize certificate in all their outlets.

Having its headquarters based in Somerset means the company benefits greatly from parents who have moved out of London and have been working for big organisations and earning huge amounts of money. “Their priorities have changed after having children. They want something interesting and relevant, but they also want work life balance,” says Travers. “We have benefited greatly from this. They have a lot of experience of the kind of organisations we would like to be. In return we give them time with their families.”

The company also recognises the skills parents bring to the workplace as parents and is willing to make adjustments to retain valued staff. That can mean them either taking on a less onerous role or reducing their hours or, alternatively, taking on more responsibility and moving up the career ladder when they are ready.

Travers has herself benefited from this approach. She joined the company five and a half years ago. A single parent, she had just moved from Cornwall with two young children. Her background was in events management and she petitioned the company to get a part-time job and the position of events manager eventually came up. Within a few weeks of starting the job, she was touring the country with a team of 20 staff fitting boots every weekend for 10 weeks. She called in every available childcare favour. “I felt very vulnerable as I needed to work,” she says. “I was doing too many hours and people in the organisation could see that.”

She was encouraged to talk about what would work for her and she moved to a projects-based role dealing with a mix of issues, including reviews of procedures and setting up a corporate responsibility programme. “I loved having that variety,” she said, “and I was really impressed that someone was looking and cared if I was overworking,” she says.

She admits flexible working can be difficult within a customer-facing industry such as retail, but says that one of the strengths of DUO is that it has enough part-time staff to allow it more flexibility than most. Staff can swap shifts with each other if, for some reason, like a child being sick, they cannot come in to work. “Having a lot of part-time staff means we have a bigger pool of staff to draw on,” she says, adding that DUO allows staff absence for any reasonable personal reason on the same basis as child-related absence and remote working is enabled wherever appropriate or possible. For instance, one manager has been working remotely for some weeks this as her mother was undergoing cancer treatment and lives some distance away. Sabbaticals are also encouraged.

Because they sell women's boots DUO's staff tend to be mainly women. Not all the part-time staff are mums, though. Many are students doing courses. They need flexibility for different reasons. “The thing about working here is that you are not made to feel bad if you have to leave early for a particular reason," says Travers. "We know that if we give a bit of flexibility people will return that. It can be very stressful and make people very unhappy if they are worried about getting into work when your child is ill. As a mum you are caught between a rock and a hard place. We like to treat people as grown-ups.”

New mums

At DUO's headquarters in Frome staff are offered lists of local childcare providers for new mums with personal recommendations from staff who have used them. There are meetings when women are pregnant to talk about their rights and employees are encouraged to talk to other mums and network.

“It's about getting as much information as possible as choosing childcare is a very personal and emotional thing,” says Travers.

The company has a good rate of return from maternity leave. “People seem to want to come back,” says Travers. “They have seen other people come back and it has worked." The company's flexible approach means that if staff wish to come back on fewer hours or swap to less onerous roles they can accommodate that. One of their accounts staff was working part-time, but found her role too demanding to do on a part-time basis. There was a swap-around in the office and the woman's role was slightly changed and she has remained in the organisation. “Staff retention is really important to us,” says Travers. “What matters is encouraging communication and listening to staff.”

During maternity leave, staff can choose to give the company their personal email and are kept in touch about social and employee engagement issues, such as the organisation's employee survey. “People can feel isolated on maternity leave and we like them to feel that they are still included and can, for instance, take part in the survey if they want to,” says Travers.

She says the flexible approach is led from the top –  the company's chief executive has small children and has a keen interest in flexible working and in career progression for all staff. DUO has a skills and development manager in-house who is responsible for identifying and delivering training to individuals at every level, supporting staff with their own personal development goals as well as career progression. There are several women in senior management roles, many of whom are parents. The head of design, for instance, went part-time after she had a baby girl. “She works hard and has good support from an assistant so between them they make it work both for them and for the business,” says Travers.

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