· 7 min read · Features

Flexible working: Case studies - Family matters

Published:

Jacky Hyams talks to three people who are currently working flexibly and finds out why such working practices are increasingly becoming important for both employees and businesses.

ANNE KEMP, Director, geospatial business, Atkins

Anne Kemp joins the evening throng heading for the exit doors of the airport terminal. Her flight from Dubai was delayed nearly an hour and she wants to make it home before her three daughters go to bed.

Travelling takes up about a quarter of Kemp's working life: to India, the US, Europe and the Middle East. She averages a 50-hour working week. Yet Kemp, 45, responsible for the overall management and direction of a team of 70 people involved in geospatial technology engineering projects in various locations worldwide, still works flexible hours.

Since she joined Atkins, a major engineering and design consultancy, in 1995 as a part-time consultant, Kemp's working schedule has varied from two to four days a week to accommodate the changing needs of her family.

Kemp, and her husband, Martin, chief geotechnical engineer at Atkins, have three daughters: Jessica, 13, Georgina, 10, and Maria, 6. Currently she works Monday to Friday - but only in term time. Despite this, she has been promoted to director level by Atkins all the way through her career, being made head of her unit while working just two and a half days a week.

"Atkins has been incredibly flexible," says Kemp. "After Jessica was born I tried to go back to my previous company after six weeks off but I realised I was far too maternal to do that so I left. My husband mentioned to his boss that I'd stopped work. He said: 'That's a waste. Why doesn't she come and work for us?'

"I started on half a day a week," she explains, "and since 1997 I've changed my days about six times, though obviously I've had maternity leave too. I was able to work part-time because I was either managing people or acting as a senior adviser, in a leadership and strategy role, rather than working on projects, which allowed me to devise quite a flexible job for myself. "

She admits the complexity of juggling parenting and work roles has its downside. "It's always a challenge if you're looking after children. You are always thinking: Will there be a clash? What will I do if the children are sick? So you probably do need to be pragmatic - and have a great deal of patience. The lessons learned as a working mother have really helped me as a manager and leader of people."

SUE COOPER, HR director, Atkins

Cooper says Atkins is trying to go much further than the law when it comes to flexible working. "If someone has the legal right for three months off until a child is five," she says, "we say they can request longer leave than that - and we will try to accommodate it. We actively encourage our line managers to find ways of accommodating flexible working.

"Organisations like ours, which have certain skills shortages in parts of the business, work very hard to work round those staff and encourage them to apply," she adds. "Flexible working makes the company more attractive," she points out. "The only time - and it is rare - where we'd refuse a request for is if it can't be accommodated. For instance, if someone is in an operational role where they meet customers frequently, it's less easy."

ATKINS

Employs: l2,000 people in the UK

- 9% work part-time

- 2% work full-time from home Thanks to technical developments, a growing percentage work informally from home

JULIAN TAYLOR, Partner, Simmons & Simmons

Sometimes the best working ideas only emerge when you're a long way from the office. In 2005, Julian Taylor, 38, was on a fortnight's beach holiday in Portugal with his wife, Vicky, and their children, George, then 3, and Maddie, 1. As the family relaxed in the sunshine, Taylor indulged in one of those wistful 'what if' moments.

"You start to think about the meaning of life in that situation," he recalls, "and I wondered if, somehow, it might be possible to see more of my kids. It concerned me that I wasn't seeing much of them in the week."

Taylor is a partner in a large international law firm with a London office. "Lawyers are not great at getting home early," he explains, "and often I'd come back and the children would be in bed. So Vicky and I discussed what I could do. She works two days a week as a psychologist. I wondered if it might be possible for me to be a bit more flexible, have a half day off each week. I thought Wednesday afternoon would be a good time as it's in the middle of the week."

Three and a half years on, Taylor, an employment lawyer, continues to work four and a half days each week. There's another addition to their family - India, 2, and he says the arrangement has made a huge difference to all their lives.

"I raised it with my boss as soon as we got back from holiday and he had to clear it internally. I wanted to be sure that the other partners in my group were happy and they were extremely supportive - which makes a big difference. It was a very easy process: I started the arrangement three weeks after I first suggested it. I go in Wednesday morning," he explains, "leave at 12.45 and spend the afternoon helping out at George and Maddie's school. But my clients know I'm still available in an emergency."

There's no sense of it being unusual for a man to work flexibly. "I've got a friend, a consultant, who works four days a week for similar reasons - he's got a small daughter. And there are quite a lot of flexible working arrangements here: we have another guy in our finance department who works from home some of the time and does different hours on different days.

"My kids are not really at an age where they comment on it," he says, "but they definitely like it. It leaves me feeling more engaged with their lives during the week and for me it's like having a mini weekend mid-week."

But is it difficult for a man to ask for flexible working? "In some organisations," he admits, "requests to work part-time from women are viewed more sympathetically than requests from men - for cultural reasons - but I work with a lot of organisations in relation to these issues and more and more employers are moving away from the idea that flexible working is directly related to childcare. They are saying anyone can apply; the only thing is whether it's practicable for the company to allow the arrangement. They are not questioning people on why they want to work flexibly, it's down to the individual. And that's a positive development."

SIMON WATSON, head of Employment International Practice Group for Simmons & Simmons

"Julian is an extremely high performer," says Watson, "and, with high performers, you are always keen to retain them. The best thing about his arrangement is it's invisible both to colleagues and clients; he's always willing, if necessary, to take calls that arise on Wednesday afternoons."

The nature of the legal profession is, he says, the prime consideration when considering any flexible working arrangement. "It's always about whether or not it is realistic in relation to the service we deliver to clients," he admits. "There must be a limit to it for client-facing roles. We are in a very competitive environment so if a client doesn't get the service from us, they go elsewhere."

One other person in Watson's group works flexibly, also four and a half days a week."Her arrangement is different: she doesn't come into the office at all on Friday and works from home Friday mornings," he says. "At the moment, we've got six people on maternity leave, five with their first child, one having her second. The latter already works flexibly; I expect the others to ask for a flexible arrangement when they return."

SIMMONS & SIMMONS LONDON
- 41% male
- 59% female
- l4% working flexibly (including part-time and home working)
Age breakdown:
- 32% under 30
- 33% 30-40
- 23% 40-50
- 10% 50-60
- 2% over 60

JULIE BARKER, Head of relationship management (benefits), Grass Roots

Friday night in the office and Julie Barker is checking her schedule, tidying up loose ends and generally covering all bases so that her team of five are fully briefed for the week to come. "It's like going on holiday every week," explains Barker, 40 who has worked for performance improvement company Grass Root for the past seven years.

"I won't be around till Wednesday so I have to pre-plan to make sure everything is covered. That's the way I work," says Barker, who works flexibly three days a week, usually Wednesday to Friday, but moves her days around if needed - either for client meetings or, occasionally, for domestic reasons.

Barker has run Grass Roots' benefits proposition since she started, with direct responsibility for major accounts like GlaxoSmithKline, BT, Lloyds TSB and Barclays. "I came here with the view that I could only do the role for three days a week," explains Barker, who has two sons, Oliver, 10 and Joseph, now 7. Joseph was a seven-month-old baby when she started.

How did she request this kind of flexibility? "I spoke to Andy Lister, the managing director, before the interview," she explains, "and the company was prepared to interview me on that basis."

Barker was employed for 15 years at NatWest in various HR-related roles and worked a three-day week after Oliver was born. (The Grass Roots job in Tring was ideal because she didn't want to continue the commute from Bedfordshire to NatWest's central London base). "Grass Roots is very reasonable," she says. "I work nine to five on Wednesday and 10 to six the other two days, so I can take the children to school."

What do the rest of the staff think of her arrangement? "They know I'm available if anyone needs me; if it's urgent I'm always contactable," she stresses. "We didn't have any clients at all when I first started, so all the clients I've ever worked with are aware of my flexible arrangements."

She believes the benefit of flexible working to the business is usually improved performance. "A lot of the time, they'll probably get more out of a person working part time." Essentially, she feels her arrangement works because there is flexibility on both sides. "Grass Roots is good in that respect," she says. "But I'm aware that a lot of employers are not like that."

ANDY LISTER, managing director, Grass Roots

Lister says that flexible working is about the person not the role: Grass Roots tends to judge each individual case on its merits. "That's been our approach here, mainly because we are a customer-facing business and many of our customers work flexible hours too. Large corporates have a fairly flexible approach to working - and they empathise with us in allowing people to work in this way. They understand that maybe their contact isn't going to be there every day of the week - but will do the job to the best of their ability when they are there."

The benefit, he points out, is that the organisation attracts and retains talent. "People like Julie are a benchmark for others in senior roles who work flexibly," he adds.

Are there any cases where the company wouldn't offer flexible working? "Providing the individual can demonstrate that it's not detrimental to the customer we will always consider it," he says.

GRASS ROOTS UK
Flexible workers: 73
Female employees: 196
Male employees: 128