This year marks the 30th anniversary of Working Families, the campaigning organisation for family-friendly workplaces. To celebrate, Working Families is launching, for the first time, a definitive list of employers whose far-sighted practices have brought them success - and created flexible, engaging workplaces for parents and carers.
The timing of this list is, of course, equally auspicious: the right to request flexible working hours was extended in April to all parents with children aged 16 and under and, in a recession, forward-thinking organisations understand the positive benefits of family-friendly policies. Flexible working retains and motivates employees, leads to savings in recruitment costs and reductions in absenteeism and sickness rates. And at a time when many employers are seeking to maximise productivity, family-friendly policies can help them get the best out of their employees - and ensure that employers will attract and retain talent.
"In a recession, treating people properly is even more important," says Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families. "The better you treat your people, the better they work for you - a win-win situation. Working Families has three decades' worth of evidence to back this up. Morale and general employee happiness have a direct bearing on their effectiveness and happiness at work. As an employer, you want staff to be committed and feel secure in their work."
Working Families has run a best practice award since 1990 but the idea of a list of top employers has been under consideration for some time. "The idea was to focus in on what makes a good family-friendly employer," says Jackson. "The media like lists and if you don't have a single winner there's a better story and a breadth of view for other employers to focus on. So the winners are not ranked. It's a straightforward way of showing who is admired out there - these are the organisations the judges think have made the greatest contribution.
"It's not just a maternity leave package or how many people work flexibly. It's about innovation and whether that has been used to influence others. So what we end up with is a mixture, large and small: different industry sectors who demonstrate a combination of current good practice and past history."
She adds: "The idea is to launch the list by taking a look back and showing how we've come a long way in the past few decades, especially the past 10 years. There are fantastic organisations that are new players in the field and won't make it this year because we're celebrating where we've come from. Next year you will see some different people doing well because it will be based entirely on what organisations are doing at the time."
Ben Black is MD of My Family Care, a family-friendly employee benefits company. He points to the success of the US organisation Working Mother, set up more than 20 years ago, which produces a list of the best places to work for working parents. "As an HR award in the US, it's hugely powerful. It even moves share prices," he says.
"Five years ago, if you said to a company here, 'You really should be supporting parents,' they would have given you a lot of hot air. Back then, they needed people at their desks. But in the past few years, technology has made flexible working a reality for the workforce, so it's easier for companies to give support to people with young schoolchildren or elderly parents needing help.
"A list like this gets the message out to employers that it's now sensible and commercially viable to have family-friendly policies, and let's shout about the people who have embraced it and are leading the agenda. If we hit all the right buttons, we hope this will be the UK equivalent of Working Mother."
Nominations for the Top Employers list came from Working Families members and 30 work-life balance pioneers. Jackson explains: "We asked people who have made an individual contribution to the changing way we think about work and life and said: 'Who do you admire?' It wasn't a case of saying X is better than Y. We're saying here's a group of organisations that have together created an earthquake in the way they think about work. It's a collective hurrah rather than a one-to-20 list."
With more than 100 nominations to consider, the judges - Sarah Jackson, Patricia Hewitt, Professor Cary Cooper and Fleur Bothwick (see box, opposite page) - looked for leadership in flexible working, childcare provision, maternity and/or paternity policy and elder care policy.
"The first 10 or so we all pretty much agreed on. After that it got harder to choose," says Hewitt. "But what you see finally is a range of organisations, many of whom were early champions of family-friendly working when it was a new idea for many employers, and politicians just jeered at it. Among those early champions are a number that have gone on innovating and for many, I'm glad to say, extending their philosophy of support for parents with children to employees with elder care responsibilities.
"What also came out clearly are a number of organisations working in difficult, male-dominated sectors with a very macho long-hours culture. Despite that, these organisations have put a lot of effort into trying to change the culture and support women initially - but also support men who want to work in different ways. So the list reflects the sea change of the past 20 years, although there's still a long way to go. The big challenge is making it easier for men to change their working hours so they can share the care of their children."
Cooper was happy to see a wider range of business sectors with innovative family-friendly policies than he'd anticipated. "It's not just professional services," he says. "What we have now is organisations viewing this as not just a morally ethical thing to do, but as a bottom-line issue; the technology now enables us to have many more flexible arrangements than before."
He adds: "What was surprising were the sectors where you don't really expect innovation, like engineering, manufacturing and utilities, coming up with all sorts of ideas. It's more difficult in those sectors. They're very male-dominated and, in the past, senior male attitudes made it difficult because they'd have been seen as 'soft' schemes. And a lot of these organisations are doing metrics on it - the impact is not just about attracting and retaining people, it's about added value to productivity. Seeing that kind of spread is really impressive."
Bothwick says the final list shows a good balance of different sizes of organisation as well as different sectors. She adds: "What is really encouraging is where companies have developed the policy changes, put them into practice, talked about the impact and business case - and then started building on that."
She highlights the increased focus on elder care. "One company had even broadened the definition of 'dependent' so that it could be an elderly neighbour. The agenda has moved from meeting the legislation on flexible arrangements through to all sorts of ideas like pre- and post-maternity workshops, newsletters when people are off work, coaching for senior women on their return to their role - even extending it to financial planning for families. There are also more carers' networks in-house. The ideas are becoming more tailored to different groups with employee needs."
Jackson says: "This list gives you a good picture of the changes in different sectors over the years. With every one of the employers, there's a story to be told of pushing change forward in different circumstances - and making it stick."
For more case studies go to www.hrmagazine.co.uk
AND THE WINNERS ARE...
Britannia Building Society
Nationwide Building Society
The Ministry of Justice
The Metropolitan Police
Hertfordshire County Council
Wragge & Co
Ford of Britain
Worcestershire Acute Hospitals
THE MINISTRY OF JUSTICE
The MOJ is the first government department to set up a Network for Caring that supports, guides and advises parents, carers and their managers.
MOJ deputy permanent secretary Carolyn Downs says: "I'm very proud of my colleagues who have done all the hard work setting it up from scratch.
"We are one of the biggest public sector employers in the country, so I think it's right we are effectively acting as a trailblazer. It means staff can be more productive but in terms of parental support, it also means we are providing support for young people for the future."
The Network for Caring was launched in 2002. It is run from Gateshead by a jobshare team comprising Tracy Armstrong and Beverley Adams (pictured), both of whom have experienced elder care as well as childcare support issues.
"We have a database of staff who use us regularly and on average we get 30 to 40 calls a week on a range of different issues," says Armstrong.
"We use an intranet site with all the information that people need, a newsletter that goes out once every two months, a group email system so that if we're running an event or special telephone day we can communicate at the push of a button, and we use staff magazines too.
"We also run special telephone days every month - that means the phone never stops ringing."
Both confirm a big increase in staff with elder care needs in recent years.
"It's not unusual to find people in multiple caring situations" says Adams. "And even though the profile of caring has been raised, it's still a very difficult emotional situation to be in, and it's not easy to know where to get help."
Increasingly, both sexes are seeking support. "We run courses for new fathers as well as for mums now," says Adams. "Women tend to make links with other mums more easily, so men are always glad to get the opportunity to make links with other fathers."
Downs agrees that at present, the future looks challenging.
"That means that as employers we have to put in as much support for colleagues as we can," she says. "Networks like this are a real means to show you really do care about your staff."
- The ministry has 95,000 staff across 2,700 sites.
- All employees have the right to request flexible working and the length of paid maternity, paternity and adoption leave extends beyond statutory provision.
- Staff can apply for paid special leave for many reasons, including care for a sick child or a dependent, or a breakdown in existing care arrangements.
- Staff can request an unpaid career break (from three months to five years).
Eden McCallum is a consultancy for global and local companies across all sectors with a turnover of £12-15 million. Clients include Tesco, Lloyds Banking Group and the BBC.
It employs 25 permanent staff based in London and Amsterdam and has a network of 400 independent consultants, a low-cost flexible business model that allows staff and freelance consultants greater control and flexibility in their work.
- 50% of permanent staff work flexibly.
- 80% of the permanent staff are female.
- 70% of freelance consultants are male.
"Everyone's flexible programme is tailored individually," says managing director Dena McCallum. "Consultants can set whatever constraints they want and of the permanent staff working flexibly, some work 70% in the office three days a week and half a day from home. Others work five days a week with extra unpaid leave, ie five additional unpaid weeks' holiday for school holidays plus their normal five weeks' holiday entitlement."
She adds: "We're delighted to be on the list. Traditionally, professional services are such intense places. In the past, people felt the only way to get ahead was to work all hours, day and night. But we started off by believing there was a different way to do things. Anything can work - it's about figuring out what the individual or business needs are."
Halcrow Group is a professional services engineering consultancy specialising in the provision of planning, design and management services for infrastructure development worldwide.
- It employs 8,500 employees in more than 70 locations.
- 4,250 employees work in 28 UK offices.
- 8% of these employees work part-time (60% female, 40% male).
- A flexitime system, introduced 20 years ago, is available to all staff.
- 30% of Halcrow's staff are female - a very high percentage for a company in the build environment sector.
- Women fill 5% of senior leadership roles, compared with less than 1% five years ago.
"We're delighted at the recognition," says group HR director Mandy Clarke.
"As an infrastructure consultancy, our whole mission is to improve and sustain the quality of people's lives. And in a male-dominated sector like ours, it's not usual to have many men working part-time.
"In addition, the policy to offer flexible working hours to all our employees is seen by them as a fantastic benefit. And it's created a real competitive advantage for us.
"What we can all learn from this is it's the way you treat people with respect that makes an organisation stand out. Having a supportive environment to work in will drive whether organisations will fail or thrive at a time of recession."
FORD OF BRITAIN
- Ford employs 12,500 staff in the UK at seven main sites. While women make up only 7.7% of the Ford workforce, the female graduate intake has more than doubled in the past five years.
- Flexible working is open to all employees; 49 part-time workers are currently on the production line.
- The company has a wide range of employee networking groups, including one for carers.
- Its Best In Class Maternity and Parental Support policy offers 100% full pay for 52 weeks maternity leave for women (plus adoption leave for both sexes). Men get two weeks' paternity leave, fully paid.
- Supportive benefits include ante-natal classes; in-house maternity return- to-work workshops for new fathers as well as mothers; and on-site nursery facilities.
- An employee assistance programme offers a 24-hour confidential helpline for advice on personal or work-related issues with specially trained advisers in childcare, eldercare, marital and family issues.
"We're delighted to receive external recognition for what we consider to be industry leading benefits and supportive policies," says Jane Tottingham, diversity and inclusion manager for Ford of Britain.
"For us, the concept of flexible working continues to be a business priority, even in a very tough economic climate, particularly in the automotive industry.
"Ford remains totally committed to developing actions in partnership with unions to ensure we are a supportive workplace for all working parents and carers."
The judging panel comprised Sarah Jackson (awarded an OBE in 2007 for services to quality of life issues) and three other leading experts from the work-life and employment policy arena:
The Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt MP, Labour MP for Leicester West and former secretary of state for health (2005-07) and secretary of state for trade and industry and cabinet minister for women (2001-05). Hewitt helped introduce legislation for the right to request flexible working for parents of children up to age six.
Professor Cary L Cooper CBE, pro-vice-chancellor of Lancaster University and professor of organisational psychology and health. He has carried out numerous studies highlighting the plight of working families and is the author of The Long Hours Culture and Surviving the Workplace.
Fleur Bothwick, director of diversity and inclusiveness (EMEIA) at Ernst & Young and a Working Families trustee.