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Term-time working: The new model for flexibility?

HR needs be innovative in designing flexible working options, such as term-time working

Over a rushed breakfast recently, partially interrupted by mopping up a significant milk massacre from the kitchen floor, I read the Timewise Power List of part-time workers. You cannot help but feel inspired by the list and I felt a huge sense of pride at such high-profile recognition for those working flexibly. These are the role models and pioneers that pave the way for the rest of us; predominantly women but likewise an increasing number of men too.

It brought me back to a question I have been pondering – am I officially a part-time worker? Since my son was born five years ago I have worked in all sorts of flexible ways, including compressed hours and at home, but I have always contractually been a full-time worker. However, from January this year I moved onto a ‘term-time only’ contract – an ideal fit now that my son is at school.

I work in the schools sector so term-time only is a working pattern that is deeply embedded in our organisational culture. What surprises me looking back is that it never occurred to me to consider term-time working until a colleague suggested it as an option. Suddenly it seemed the obvious solution to finding balance in my life.

Education and schools are really busy during term-time and we all work long hours, so this option gives me much better quality time with my family than working part-time during the school term could ever do.

More employers should be embracing this as an option for working parents with children at school. There are some sectors where this would be difficult (such as retail and leisure where holidays can be a peak time), but for many others it can work extremely well around the flows of the business and be a key mechanism to attract and retain talent – particularly women in senior roles.

I have been an executive director for more than 10 years and I have always been fortunate to work with gender-diverse teams. However, I've noticed that other senior female colleagues tend to have no children or their children are grown up – it is incredibly difficult to stay at the top when children are very young. I am proud that in United Learning we are bucking that trend; we are dedicated to employing the best people and have many forms of flexibility in place to achieve that. We have strong female representation in both executive and school leadership roles.

Business is going to have to wake up to the benefits of flexible working if we are to retain talented people – and not just women as flexibility is increasingly an issue for men. Technological developments, social changes such as gender equality and higher retirement ages mean we have to smash outdated notions of the working week and be innovative in our approach to flexibility.

I hear all the time from women who would love to work after having children but are unable to because there are so few part-time roles available. These are talented capable people and it is such a waste. It was heartening to see Timewise research showing that 46% of business decision-makers would consider hiring someone flexibly, so I am optimistic that the tide is turning. Given the recent estimate by PwC that tackling the career break penalty faced by women returners could contribute £1.7 billion to the UK economy this is essential for the good of our nation.

In HR we need to be at the cutting edge of a workplace revolution to create more flexibility. We have a responsibility not only to ensure that we practise what we preach in our own sector but that we provide colleagues with the ambition, assistance and capability to make it the norm in any organisation, at any level.

Such flexibility makes us better businesses, better parents, better colleagues and better people.

Mandy Coalter is director of people at United Learning