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School's out for summer: Flexibility for parents

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5th Aug 2008
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Alice Cooper might not have been so chuffed about school being out for summer if he’d had to juggle his busy rock touring schedule with a couple of bored kids. Matt Henkes looks at how two top firms are providing their staff with the necessary flexibility.

 

 

 

The excitement that once accompanied the approach of summer when we were children quickly turns to a melancholy longing when we enter the world of work and have to balance working time with spending time with our own kids during the school holidays.

There are a number of pressures endured by parents during the six-week school hiatus, not least the unbalanced amount of leave they are entitled to – most adults enjoy two weeks at best. If you're in a couple you can stagger your holiday to partially cover the gap but this still leaves you with two weeks spare and no holiday entitlement to take a break later in the year.

The good news is that there is help out there. "There are a number of holiday play schemes, a lot of which are subsidised by the local authorities," says Mandy Garner, editor of the parenting website Working Mums. "You can also find out about voluntary organisations that often run good schemes, so there's a bit of help out there."

However, recent research from the Daycare Trust indicated the cost of childcare in England had risen by a budget-busting 10% in the last year alone. "There are certainly concerns about the cost," says Garner. "Parents have to be quite creative over the summer holidays and should also talk to their employers about ways of working more flexibly during the holidays."

 

Flexible working options

 

  • Flexi-time: Employees may be required to work within essential periods but outside 'core times' they often get flexibility in how they work their hours.
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  • Job-sharing: Typically, two employees share the work normally done by one employee.
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  • Working from home: New technology makes communication with office and customers possible by telephone, fax and email from home, car or other remote locations.

 

  • Term-time working: An employee on a permanent contract takes paid or unpaid leave during school holidays.
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  • Staggered hours: Employees in the same workplace have different start, finish and break times, often as a way of covering longer opening hours.

 

  • Annual hours: This is a system which calculates the hours an employee works over a whole year. The annual hours are usually split into 'set shifts' and 'reserve shifts' which are worked as the demand dictates.

 

  • Compressed working hours: Employees work their total agreed hours over fewer working days - for example, a five-day working week is compressed into four days.

 

  • Shift working: Shift work is widespread in industries which must run on a 24-hour cycle, such as newspaper production, utilities and hospital and emergency services.
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  • Source: Acas

At present, parents of children under the age of six already have a legal right to request flexible working, modifying their hours or days of work to provide a better work-life balance.

However, with the upcoming extension of the right to request for parents of children up to the age of 16, many employers are now recognising the importance of flexible working and work-life balance in the battle to hang onto their most valuable people.

Homeward bound

Sally Ward, diversity manager at BT, says her firm is well aware of this. The company offers a range of benefits to all staff and recognises that school holidays can be a difficult time.

Employees have access to homeworking or occasional homeworking, part-time working, job sharing, flexi-hours and term-time working. As the name implies, term-time working allows working parents time to care for their children during school holidays. Unpaid special leave can also be added to an individual's personal leave entitlement to enable them to take all the school holidays off.

In addition, BT provides a childcare scheme which enables employees to reduce the cost of childcare by up to £100 per year and access to emergency childcare provision. According to Ward, there are almost as many ways of looking after children as there are children. "By talking with parents and providing them with information about childcare options, we can usually come to an arrangement that meets the needs of the parent, the child and our customers," she says.

BT is in a nice position as a large number of the roles within the organisation are suitable for flexible working, with plans afoot to increase the proportion. It already operates what it calls 'homeshoring', a scheme that allows call centre advisors to work from home. "As the technology improves, more roles will be able to work that way," says Ward. "Homeshoring is a very attractive proposition for people who have caring responsibilities, older workers and parents who want to fit around their children."

BT has a 50% higher rate of mothers returning to work post pregnancy than the national average, so what the firm is doing appears to be working. "When all adults in a family have to flex all aspects of their life to enable them to meet all their responsibilities and achieve an acceptable work-life balance, flexible working options are a sensible solution," says Ward. "Any employer that can offer flexible working solutions to prospective or existing employees will be ahead of the game in attracting the best talent."

Flex in the City

KPMG, one of the leading professional services firms, knows better than most about the battle for key talent. Named as the best big company to work for by The Times, the firm has utilised flexible working historically as part of its operational model. "Flexible working - in the sense of the ability to work away from the office, at client sites or on the move - has long been part of the way in which we do business," says Sarah Bond, head of diversity for the City powerhouse.

"What has changed is that we now also see flexible working in terms of how, where and when our people work as a core component of our people strategy," she says.

Ownership of KPMG's flexible working applications rest with its people managers, rather than with HR. Bond believes it is the support and flexibility of managers, along with initiatives such as its network of 'flexible working champions' in the business, not to mention the continued support of the firm's senior partners, which has enabled it to achieve the success it has.

A 'significant proportion' of KPMG employees can work from home on a non-contractual informal basis. "That isn't controlled centrally," says Bond. "Our line managers manage this in line with their local resourcing requirements and the needs of our clients."

So what do they offer that put them at the top of the The Times table? For starters there is glide time, where an employee can shift the beginning and the end of their working day, part-time working, job-share, additional holiday purchase, unpaid leave for breaks of less than three months, career breaks, home-working, annualised days, or a combination of any of the above.

Bond says that whilst in practice most of those who work flexibly do have caring responsibilities, flexible working in KPMG is open to everyone, not just parents. "The key enabler for us has been that our managers think creatively about what is possible, rather than rejecting requests," she adds.

"We believe it is an essential feature of what any good employer has to offer in order to recruit, retain and motivate the best talent in a competitive market."

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By Sam Swinstead
06th Aug 2008 10:20

Paul makes the comment that we need to persuade those without kids that they are not being discriminated against when covering for
those who do.

In the examples given - KPMG offer flexibility to ALL staff regardless of carer responsibilities and I didn't notice BT claiming that their scheme requires non carers to cover for parents working flexibly!

I would strongly challenge the concept that fexible working puts others at a disadvantage. I am sure no sane business is offering flexible schemes that mean staff don't perform fully in their jobs or that leave crucial work tasks uncovered during key times!!

Flexibility means just that - the opportunity to get the work done in ways that are perhaps different to the perceived norm - but that flexibility doesn't mean the job doesn't get done!

In fact I would suggest that in most instances the flexibility enables more people to work at their optimum and to succeed in their chosen job and career.

Certainly I know of one company that wanted to support two working mums as they returned to work after maternity leave with changes to their working hours to fit with childcare arrangements.

The result is a response service that is now actually able to provide ten hours of service a day rather than eight, and two employees who work hours that mean they are confident of their chidcare arrangements.

These two employees pretty much manage the flexibiliity of their arrangements themselves these days and their manager is delighted with the standards of work they provide. Noone else is inconvencienced or covering for them - in fact the whole department now takes a flexible approach to work - the manager trusts people to get their jobs done in the best way possible and at the same time noone ever misses a sports day, a school assembly or a dentists appointment. Guess what - they are the highest performing dept in the company!

Okay - I'm off my soap box now!

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By anselp
05th Aug 2008 13:38

I'm all in favour of being family-friendly. The problem is persuading the childless people who have to cover the office that you are not discriminating against them.

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