roundtable on flexible working in senior roles’s white paper on flexible senior roles highlights best practice among leading employers and is based on a roundtable earlier this year.

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The roundtable, held on 4th February and hosted by Schneider Electric at its London offices, brought together HR, diversity and recruitment experts from 17 organisations to discuss the challenges facing employers seeking to recruit flexible workers into senior roles. The aim of the roundtable was to explore shared challenges, discuss best practice and look at what works and find ways forward.

The roundtable was introduced by Gillian Nissim, founder of, who spoke about the organisation’s commitment to sharing and promoting best practice in diversity and flexible working and about the need for openness to address shared challenges. She introduced the chair Anna Meller, work life balance expert and author of #Upcycle Your Job.

Siobhan Kelly-Bush from Schneider introduced Mike Hughes, Zone President of Schneider UK and Ireland, who is personally very committed to the Diversity and Inclusion agenda and said that over the last year the company had extended its D & I work across all parts of its operations in the UK and Ireland and that social issues, such as sustainability, are at the heart of what Schneider does.

Siobhan spoke of the work Schneider does and how it had moved from being an engineering company to being focused more on technology innovation. It has over 137,000 employees in over 100 countries. Its D & I work, which is at the core of its brand, is dedicated to breaking down stereotypes. The company’s CEO is a big advocate of D & I. Schneider supports the HeForShe campaign and has a global women’s advisory board. It is focused on pay equity across the world and promotes flexible working and mentoring. The company has introduced challenging 50:50 targets for hiring and seeks to celebrate all talents.

Anna Meller introduced the theme of the roundtable, saying that flexible senior roles were known to be a challenge and were at the heart of her book. She asked participants to say a little about their own motivation for attending the roundtable. Reasons varied from getting more women into male-dominated professions, tackling inconsistencies in flexible working across divisions, difficulties in getting senior buy-in, developing internal talent so senior roles are not recruited outside the organisation and taking on Queen Bee syndrome to improving the gender pay gap, using returner programmes to recruit senior women and building a more flexible culture. Some employers had gender diversity at board level, but struggled with getting it at middle management level.

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Flexible working 

Anna Meller said there were lots of reasons women were getting stuck in their careers. A lack of flexible jobs was a prime one, with insurance firm Zurich saying it had seen a 45% boost in applications from women since it started advertising all roles as open to flexible working.

There was a discussion about what flexibility meant. One employer said its senior leaders thought they offered flexible working because they believed flexible working meant working full time but having control over your calendar and being able to work in an agile way. There was flexibility about where people worked, but less flexibility about their hours. Long hours were expected in senior roles. However, many women didn’t want that. They needed consistent hours, but part-time work was fairly rigid. Employers said they had problems hiring part-time workers because both were counted as one person when it came to head count for recruitment purposes.

It was hard to change the full-time mentality and a presenteeism culture.

Anna Meller said for some working a more spread-out day and flexing around things like childcare made it easier to get things done, but that approach didn’t work for everyone. It was important therefore that managers were encouraged to understand what patterns worked best for the individuals in their teams and to know their personal circumstances. Some managers felt uncomfortable tailoring work patterns to individuals and felt it was setting precedents or opening themselves up to accusations of unfairness, but a one size fits all approach didn’t work either.

Without flexible working employers were failing to use their employees’ skills to the full.’s research found that, despite widespread skills shortages, many people were working below their skill level due to the lack of flexible working. Meller said a sticking point had been reached and that flexible working was clearly an important key to addressing the gender pay gap.

For some the problem was that there still appeared to be a stigma attached to flexible working and a distance between what managers and employees perceive as flexible working. Surveys showed employee engagement rose significantly when people felt they had flexible working. It was felt that hiring managers needed training to cover what flexible working actually means in practice, ie that it is not just part-time working, that part-time working can be 30 hours or more and that it is about empowering individuals to have more control over their hours. The hiring forms are often very rigid when more flexible forms of working, such as around core hours, can be more useful for employees.

Anna Meller asked what messages employers were giving about flexible working in informal conversations and how managers were identifying what women needed to progress. There was a discussion about the tension between the fact that different people needed different arrangements and how formal policies could be inflexible. One employer asked whether there needed to be formal policies on issues affecting women, such as the menopause, carer’s leave and so forth, all of which linked to flexible working. Was it more important to guarantee a minimum standard of flexibility and give managers the power to take decisions based on individual needs?

Others felt line managers wanted policies and guidelines they could follow and employers felt that they needed to be given overt permission to authorise a particular way of working.  Some squared the circle by writing policy in a way that empowered managers to do the right thing by giving them examples and case studies of scenarios that might work. It could be uncomfortable for managers, however.  It was generally agreed that some sense of a framework was needed as well as some degree of autonomy for leaders to decide how to deliver flexible working.  Getting the balance right was difficult.

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Employers spoke of the difficulties they faced because they were losing women at certain levels. That meant they had to either hire women to replace them or risk their statistics looking more biased towards men. However, it was difficult to reach female talent. Traditionally they would go through headhunters who should be bound by the industry’s diversity code, but several were looking at returner initiatives. For some, though, that often meant paying extra to reach returners and a broader range of people. Others spoke of partnering with external returner companies for specific roles.

Schneider has an internal sourcing team which sometimes works with external recruiters. It also uses social media to reach out to women who might not have a traditional engineering background. It is talking to hiring managers about the need to think more broadly about where they could fish for talent, for instance, looking at women working in technology companies. It was about changing managers’ mindsets. More than half of hires last year were women so the message was getting through, but there were still issues at senior levels requiring more focus on career progression through the company.

Others also said they were encouraging hiring managers to look at different types of diversity, for instance, to look at people with experience in different industries than they normally recruited from. Some are working with women in underrepresented groups, such as those who have been in prison or are from care backgrounds to attract them into construction and then to develop them once they are there.

Gillian Nissim said recruiters were often under pressure to fill roles quickly and to place full-time workers. Research showed women candidates were more likely to research roles more thoroughly before applying. That time gap needed to be taken into account. The language used in job adverts was also important and some employers had whittled down or taken out desirable criteria for a role. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency had seen a big increase in female applicants as a result of taking off all desirable criteria from job adverts and by using case studies to highlight women at all levels of the organisation, particularly those who were working in areas which are traditionally seen as less flexible.

Anna Meller said case studies were an easy way to publicise different types of flexible working. Focusing on how real people work flexibly helped to give both internal and external hires confidence that they can talk about how they might make it work for them.

Challenging flexible norms

John Lewis has recently run a flexible working trial among branch managers at Waitrose, where it recognises there is a challenge to increase diversity. Entry level roles are very flexible with a lot of part-time roles available, but that gets harder as people move higher up the career ladder and they are keen for management to represent the diversity of the local communities where shops are based. The six- to nine-month trial involves advertising all management roles as part-time job share roles. John Lewis are working with the Government’s nudge unit to conduct research on what drives behavioural change.

Anna Meller compared the approach to that of Unilever where all roles were declared to be flexible unless it could be proved that they could not be. That changed people’s thinking and forced people to think about how it could work rather than defending the status quo.

Mike Hughes spoke about how Schneider had changed its legacy culture and got people to understand that it was taking diversity seriously. He said that involved “a cultural flip” that gives people the permission to change things. The company has significantly increased its female representation at apprenticeship level as a result.

Anna Meller said some employers get bogged down in talking about changing things rather than actually doing it. Even if things go wrong it is worth taking action.

Challenging mindsets required setting targets, pushing back against people who were opposed, including senior women who had not had flexible working, and convincing women they could do more senior roles flexibly without being overwhelmed. It also required talking about the need for flexible working for returners. Employers spoke of how managers sometimes feared what others would think if they offered reduced hours. It required tackling received ideas about part-time working. However, others argued that many returners did not want to work part time; they just wanted some flexibility.

Senior buy-in matters as does role modelling of flexible working from senior leaders. Employers could profile men in particular who are working flexibly to encourage culture change. Much flexible working is under the radar so it needs to be talked about openly.

Employers spoke about roles which require you to be physically there. That meant being creative about flexible working, for instance, allowing employees to swap shifts or changing the length of shifts. John Lewis is trialling a workplace management tool which identifies people’s availability and allows them to swap shifts.

Anna Meller asked if the advent of automation was an opportunity to challenge non-flexible norms, to look at job specifications and change them, questioning what bits are important and what can be done where. Perhaps we could be smarter about redesigning jobs, she said. Did employers need someone who would be dedicated to rethinking jobs?

Employers said part of the problem was that HR was overly concerned about being consistent, which hindered a more personal approach.

here was also a brief discussion about how tools like Textio could bring more female applicants by changing how job specifications were written. Siemens said it had seen a jump in female applicants from 18% to 27% in the year that it had used Textio. A more informal, positive approach also worked better with women, for instance, saying ‘we are interested in you if you can do x’.

To develop manager capability in some of the conversations they find more difficult, Morgan Stanley manager development programmes include scenarios for managers to role-play with actor behavioural coaches to enable them to practice having these conversations.  They said such development can help unpick how empowered managers really feel to make decisions when it comes to flexibility, to make assessments about flexible working, its impact on the team and clients and how they can make it work or how they can find alternative solutions. 

Other participants spoke of the need to trial new initiatives and different approaches to help particular members of staff. Vodafone spoke about its domestic abuse policy which allowed up to 10 days leave. The leave was not tracked in order to ensure people’s safety.

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The role of line managers 

Morgan Stanley spoke about their London management development training, which recognises the importance of the manager role in employee engagement and explores how to create an inclusive culture of career development.  The aim is to create a consistent and sustained approach to developing managers.  The training provides a practical toolkit as well as the opportunity for managers to practice having difficult conversations, such as parental transitions, mental wellbeing and performance, in a safe environment.  The training course has up to four modules, with the last focused on providing feedback and supporting career development that includes scenario practice with actor behavioural coaches that play the role of the employee.  The emphasis is on having sensitive conversations and not making assumptions. 

Schneider Electric uses Mind Gym to role model inclusive leadership. Hiring managers have had the training first in an effort to change their mindset, give them support and show them the benefits of flexible working, including improved loyalty and motivation and talent acquisition. Such training can address misconceptions about setting precedents, allow line managers time to talk about their views of flexible working and the different pressures they face and role model different scenarios they could face. Other employers offered line managers sessions to give them a safe space to talk about all their fears and voice what they might not have spoken out loud before. Chubb has an inclusive toolkit, including modular-based training. It is mandatory for hiring managers to undertake the training before interviewing anyone for a job.

Other employers had tried using independent HR representatives on interview panels for senior roles to challenge mindsets. Getting feedback on the process, however, was resource intensive. Role playing how to engage with remote staff or doing case studies of managers who were good at managing flexible workers as well as rewarding good management of flexible workers were other suggestions.

Others spoke of the difficulty of persuading senior managers to do unconscious bias training and about the challenge of engaging people if training was compulsory. Vodafone said it was exploring alternatives to unconscious bias training such as inclusive leadership and bystander intervention training which emphasises calling out negative behaviour.

On building the pipeline to senior leadership, employers spoke of the need to train line managers to recognise those ready for progression, including specific sessions identifying female talent. Just having those conversations made people more aware of the issues so opening up the discussion on different ways to flex was vital. If the women identified had young children one employer proposed giving them an acting role for a temporary period to encourage them to take it up. Another suggested encouraging women to shadow the post directly up from theirs to show them they can do it. 

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Structural reform and challenging the status quo

Vodafone spoke about its public aim to be the best employer for women by 2025 and an awareness of the need to flex to attract and retain more women. The company operates in over 25 markets and has been creating global HR policies to promote change. Its flexible global maternity programme allows employees to take months off and is available to them from day one of employment. In the UK it has looked at the causes of the gender pay gap and is addressing this through girls in STEM programmes, coding for girls, ensuring its graduate programme is 50/50 male/female and enhancing Parental Pay at the same level as enhanced maternity pay.

Around 50% of its senior leadership roles are taken by women. By 2021 it hopes to have in place a global parental policy offering a minimum of 16 weeks’ paid leave to all parents globally and a gradual return on full pay – as it does with maternity leave – available from day one of employment. It hopes this will drive shared care. In addition to its domestic abuse policy, it has also launched a free toolkit for employers on helping women workers who are experiencing domestic abuse.  

Its global returner programme aims to hire many more women in the future. The programme is open to any returner, regardless of gender, who has taken between one and 10 years out of their career. It aims to build resilience and confidence and to create a global network of reconnectors. Returners are able to work a four-day week for the first six months back and be paid a full-time salary. They are matched to jobs that are suitable for their experience and skills. Vodafone received 2,000 applicants immediately after the programme launched and is focusing now on getting returners into senior roles. Returners can apply as reconnectors and be matched to a suitable role or they can apply for a specific job and tick a box on the application form saying they are a returner.

Anna Meller asked how employers could structurally address unconscious bias to flexible workers in the promotion process, for instance, ensuring that meetings did not exclude flexible workers, for instance, allowing remote workers to submit questions to meetings beforehand and putting those up on the screen so they are not talked over. That would normalise different ways of working and ensure remote workers did not get forgotten, not have their opinions heard or get given the least interesting projects.

Employers suggested various ways that the office environment could be changed to include remote workers, for instance, Siemens has a ‘time to think’ trial, using external experts, which aims to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. 

There was a discussion about the ‘always on’ culture and how to ensure employees get adequate rest in a global working environment, for instance, putting on their emails their hours of work. Anna Meller mentioned the importance of job redesign and job crafting to ensure going part time did not mean a person doing the same work in fewer hours. Employers spoke about the need to reinforce their core values, talk about work culture and put flexibility on the agenda so people talked about it. Morgan Stanley said it held culture conversations annually, where senior staff lead mandatory firmwide sessions, engaging employees and onsite contingent workers in a dialogue about appropriate conduct, behaviour and decision-making.  Employee engagement survey data supports the themes and scenarios used to open the discussions.


These are the key takeaways:


  • Be clear about what flexible working is and that it is not just about part-time workers or working in an agile way
  • Provide training for hiring managers and make hiring forms less rigid
  • Ensure managers understand what type of flexibility works best for whom and be flexible about flexible working. One size does not fit all
  • Consider the key role of flexible working in reducing the gender pay gap
  • Develop a framework for flexible working, but don’t make rigid policies
  • Use returner programmes as a way to increase diversity at senior levels
  • Think more broadly about where to advertise and what backgrounds your candidates need, for instance, target different industries with allied job skills
  • Consider the language you use in job adverts and consider omitting desirable criteria
  • Give people longer to apply as women are likely to research roles more
  • Use case studies of women leaders and case studies of people working in a variety of flexible ways

Challenging flexible norms

  • Make all roles flexible unless it is proven that that is not possible. It changes people’s thinking
  • Give people the permission to change how things are done by showing you take diversity seriously
  • Take action to change things, even if it fails, rather than just talking about it
  • Set realisable targets
  • Push back against stereotypes
  • See automation as an opportunity to rethink how roles are done
  • Use more informal approaches with regard to job specifications

Role of line managers

  • Make it easy for managers to ask about flexible working, for instance, help them through role playing negotiations
  • Share best practice on flexible working from across the organisation and reward it
  • Allow managers space to talk about their flexible working fears and their general pressures
  • Allow women to act up or shadow senior roles if they are worried about promotion due to pressures outside work
  • Train line manager to recognise a diversity of talent

Structural reform

  • Devise ways to ensure flexible workers are not excluded
  • Be creative about ensuring everyone’s voice is heard
  • Consider job crafting to ensure people are not overworked if their hours are reduced
  • Encourage employees and managers to speak openly about flexible working


Employers participating in the event were:

  • Schneider Electric
  • Morgan Stanley
  • John Lewis Partnership
  • Siemens UK and Ireland
  • WH Smith
  • Ardmore Group
  • Vodafone
  • London Legacy Development Corporation
  • Chubb
  • Financial Reporting Council
  • WorldPay
  • Taylor Wimpey
  • Resource Solutions
  • Maritime and Coastguard Agency
  • Natixis
  • Cabinet Office
  • London Borough of Waltham Forest

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