Top Employer Awards: making the business case's Top Employer Awards 2011 was an opportunity not just to celebrate best practice around family friendly and flexible working, but also to network and find out what other organisations are doing. Here's a full report of the event.

John Lewis was named's Overall Top Employer at an event in London yesterday where the business case for flexible working was forcibly made.

Gillian Nissim, Founder of, emphasised that family friendly working was something which all businesses could benefit from. She introduced keynote speaker best-selling business author Alison Maitland [pictured]. For her new book, Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive in the New World of Work, she and co-author Peter Thomson conducted a survey of managers. Most said they expected a revolution in work culture in the next decade, she says. “It will be a change which will be as momentous as the move away from the land and into factories during the industrial revolution,” she stated. “And it is already happening in some pioneering organisations.”

She said much current flexible working policy, however, was just about tinkering at the edges of the old work model, rather than the overall shift in cultural and management attitudes that was needed.

The need for this revolution was fuelled by a raft of social and demographic changes, she stated – increasing longevity, more women in the workplace, environmental issues, changing attitudes among men to work and family life and the rise of the new connected generation which expects to work differently.

So why weren't more companies grasping the nettle? Maitland said key barriers were a lack of leadership from the top, a poor grasp of the business case for new more mobile ways of working and a lack of proper measurement of outcomes by companies that did adopt more flexible work patterns. Those companies that did measure outcomes could clearly show the business case in terms of increased staff motivation, lower absence rates, cuts in office overheads, increased productivity, better response to peaks and troughs in the market, less disruption in times of crisis, such as bad weather, and higher retention rates.

She gave examples of companies which had benefited from adopting a different work culture, including one PR firm, Word Association, which had doubled its staff and turnover after closing its office and getting all its staff to work remotely. Those companies which were leading the way, she added, were spending a lot of time with senior and middle managers to help them overcome their fears about changing from management by presenteeism to management by results.

And she said that it was interesting to note that many of the management skills needed for the new ways of working – communication, emotional intelligence and team-working – were ones which research showed women were strong in.


Her speech was followed by the announcement of the award winners. Accenture was awarded the Innovation in Flexible Working Award. Fiona O'Hara, its Human Capital and Diversity Lead for the UK and Ireland, said flexible working was what people wanted. “We have invested a lot of time and effort into getting it right,” she said.

Prudential was given the Employee Engagement Award. Relationship manager Cathy Lewis said working mums and flexible working were “a core part of the organisation” and that this was led from the top. Its chief executive was “very much a family man” who regularly made sure he was at home to read his children bedtime stories.

The Talent Attraction Award was won by Virtual Sales Team. Managing Director Andrew Smart said that when he started the organisation five years ago he had young children and could not go home to see them. This had been a big issue for him. He added that the business case for family friendly working was clear to him. “In our industry which is classed as call centres the average retention rate is 18 months. Ours is four and a half years,” he said.

The next award was for childcare and John Lewis was the winner based on its comprehensive range of policies.

The awards also sought to identify how SMEs could benefit from family friendly working. IT firm Hireserve won the award for SMEs with under 26 employees. Director Karen Ovenden said she was delighted that the firm's commitment to family friendly working had been recognised. She recalled how she had struggled to find work opportunities which allowed her the right work life balance when her children were young and how, when she had been about to hand in her notice, one employer had asked her 'what do you want'. She had said term time working and that had been agreed if she could make it work. “I have never forgotten that,” she said, “and I want to offer that opportunity to anyone who comes to work for us.”

The SME winner for employers with between 26 and 250 employees was ladies footwear retailer DUO. CEO Nick Sinfield said that understanding its customers by retaining women workers helped it to deliver a better service and that understanding its workers was part and parcel of this.

The first ever Working Mums Champion was named as Mia Drennan of Square Mile Connections who spoke about how she promoted flexible working both internally and externally to her clients.

John Lewis was the winner of the Overall Top Employer Award and said the Award recognised the strong business case for family friendly working. “Flexible working has to be at the core of everything we do for commercial reasons and so that we have the best workforce,” said resourcing manager Carole Donaldson.


The awards ceremony was followed by a panel discussion including Alison Maitland, Fiona O'Hara and the award judges: Gillian Nissim; Andy Lake, Editor of; Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Coaching Development at My Family Care; David Dunbar, Head of BT Flexible Working Services; and Dr Caroline Gatrell, Senior Lecturer in Management Learning and Leadership in the Management School at Lancaster University.

Issues covered include additional paternity leave and how to encourage more men to take up flexible working, elder care and how to shift attitudes from the current tendency to think of flexible working as a favour for employees rather than a successful business strategy. The audience of family friendly employers brought up concerns about how to manage remote workers, specifically how to prevent isolation and overworking. Dave Dunbar said BT was using a variety of methods to encourage greater communication with remote workers, such as wikis, blogs for sharing experience and Youtube for sharing training. “We have found some real superstars in this way, many of them remote workers. It's a good way to get them involved and recognised,” he said. Accenture said it was rolling out a new system which would allow remote workers to see the people they were communicating with. This was one way of countering any isolation they might feel.

Members of the audience asked if the Government could be doing more to support cultural change in the workplace. Andy Lake said some sectors of the Government were beacons of good practice on flexible working, but others were not so forward-thinking. The Department of Transport, for instance, was about to announce a remote working strategy as part of efforts to reduce congestion and pollution. One of the problems, though, was a lack of joined up thinking between departments.

Caroline Gatrell spoke of the gendered and class nature of homeworking. She said some home environments might not be geared up to remote working while women who worked from home might find themselves subject to all sorts of cultural expectations around childcare and domestic work which would make it more stressful for them. “For that reason they may often like the idea of going out to work,” she said.

All the speakers emphasised the need to make the business case for flexible working. Accenture said it was vital in customer-facing organisations to manage expectations from the start around what flexible working would mean in practice and to emphasise the importance of diversity. Andrew Smart of Virtual Sales Team agreed and said that the fact that it employed flexible workers was part of its sales pitch.

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Comments [1]

  • Anonymous says:

    If you can get a small – medium sized company to see you’ve got an excellent results-orientated way of working that will deliver for them… BINGO TOP RESULTS all ROUND. I’d like to find more ways of letting companies use the massive resource out there! Is it a legal / social/ habit question? Thank You, Bryony

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