This year, 23 organisations have been shortlisted for a special award in each of six categories. During a downturn, when organisations hope to increase productivity, the family-friendly strategies of such companies are hugely beneficial to all employers wishing to retain and attract top talent – and these strategies maximise the performance of their employees, while maintaining a good work-life balance.
"We are going through tough times as a nation, so employers are expecting a lot from staff," says Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families.
"But they also know that, as employers, they can give a lot back. It is in the business's interest to make flexible working the norm, because it enables staff to control their own work and give their best. But it is important for employers to be clear that whatever your life outside work is, work will accommodate that – and support it, if necessary."
Jackson says this year's Awards, of which HR magazine is media partner, show how family-friendly strategies of top companies are being developed even further. Innovative ideas are moving onto the agenda.
"We used to see a little bit of work on maternity and carers' networks, yet increasingly employers are saying: 'This is a big picture.' It is about how we treat everyone. That's a big improvement," she added.
Change is incremental, year-by-year, Jackson said. "What is very clear this year is that HR has to manage the impact of what is being done. There is now a wealth of research evidence for HR to make its business case. Because if you do measure, you find it's really good. People who can show us the impact of their policies have fantastic metrics they can then take to board level and say: 'Look how valuable this is.'"
Is the Government supporting the development of flexible working? "On the one hand, it is saying flexibility is good for business," says Jackson.
"But on the other, it is saying regulation is a terrible burden. It is not going for the simplest ways of effecting the changes it claims it wants to see. Companies at the top have shown their focus on helping people balance work and life," says one of the Top Employers Awards judging panel, Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute of Employment Studies. "They are saying they think balance is important – and that they will support people in that."
One emerging development is for top companies to treat fathers in the same way as mothers.
"Whether it is to do with changing legislation around leave-sharing or not, there is more evidence this is happening. Everything Centrica – which won in its category – does around this is really good. That's quite impressive. And Registers of Scotland (special commendation, Fathers) actually offers four weeks full paid paternity leave. That shows a real commitment," Mercer says.
She cites West Mercia Police (special commendation, Mothers category) as another good example. "It is operating in a difficult environment. You expect this sort of thing from financial institutions. But the culture is quite different in the police. Its buddying schemes and special provision for breastfeeding – to the extent of considering redesigning body armour – is very impressive."
Nicky Walker, senior director, inclusion, diversity and sustainability, Europe, at Cisco Systems, sees the focus on people's lives outside work as a "marked sea change" in how organisations now view their people strategy. "Henmans (winners, Career Progression) is a lovely example," she says. "It was honest in what it was trying to achieve – not losing its most important talent – and making sure that happened. And it is seeing the benefit to the company, because of the changes it has started to make.
"The overall people strategy, rather than the single issue, is what matters. And the top employers definitely have a broad sense of what they are offering, right across to the more intangible things, such as mentoring."
The winner for innovation, Amex, is another good example. Walker adds: "It has really developed a suite of offerings to target its managers to drive cultural change regarding a flexible workplace. It has lots of different things to suit different types of people – and how they might want to receive that information."
The inclusion issue, she adds, looks set to become increasingly important.
"We haven't seen a lot of that yet. It is the next stage. How do you help people still feel part of a team if they're working from home? It may be a hot desk you can go to. Or a once-a-month meeting. There comes a point when you say: 'I want to sit opposite someone at a table.'
Cary Cooper, pro vice chancellor of Lancaster University and professor of organisational psychology and health, has helped judge these awards for three successive years. He says the work of this year's top companies shows HR bosses are starting to become more strategic in their approach.
"HR is moving in the direction of performance-led HR more than ever," he adds. "And once an organisation realises there is a business case, you are seeing more retention, less stress and less presenteeism – if there are the stats to show that. But it can only become a strategic issue if more companies collect the evidence. Showing how much money a company might have saved on space, for instance: that's very good."
Overall, Cooper believes the quality of entrants to this year's Awards is impressive: "They go across both sectors: big and small companies doing brilliant work. My only concern is, given what's going on outside, maybe more people will not apply for flexible working, because at a time when people are being let go, they will think it doesn't show commitment.
"Yet the irony is, we are going to need it more than ever before. Thankfully, there's more and more evidence that it works. We know, for instance, that men who take flexible working are more job satisfied, have fewer health problems and are more productive.
"The thinking should be: flexible working arrangements need to be for everyone, not just those with children. The Government should be thinking about that one.
"Why should a single individual be deprived of the flexible working option, just because they don't have kids?"
Results: Top Employers 2011
1 Innovation and Engagement
Special commendation: Ashurst
Special commendation: West Mercia Police
Special commendation: Registers of Scotland
Chelsea & Westminster NHS Trust
6 Career Progression
Five case studies
1 Julia Mixter, HR director, Children's Trust, a charity with 540 employees (Best for Mothers category)
"We are in uncertain times, so being able to invest in the value-added things you want to give your employees is challenging: it's a well-worn argument, but if you have excellent staff, you want to retain and engage them.
"We have a subsidised nursery on site, which is fantastic. It helps us retain staff, particularly first-time mums. It is run by Co-Operative Childcare; we work together to make sure we are meeting the needs of parents on site. There's a discount of nearly 50% off the public rate to parents working at the Trust, which is a huge saving. We're in Surrey, an expensive place to live. So that level of subsidy allows us to retain good quality staff.
"We also do enhanced maternity pay: eight weeks at full pay, 18 weeks at 30% of pay, plus childcare vouchers, which is good for a charity. The other thing that is unique to the Trust is around summer camps. We look at which summer camps are running in Sure Start Centres and local schools and advise our staff about them. Those with kids aged between five and 12 wanting to access a camp will have the cost of the summer camp paid for, by us, in advance, which they then pay back. The subsidy is £8 a day per child, £8.50 a day for those with two children.
"We employ care staff, nurses, doctors and therapists on site - nearly half our employees are involved in looking after children with a wide range of problems and disabilities. The skills the staff learn are unique. So we need to make sure we do everything we can to attract and retain the talent we have."
2 Fiona O'Hara, head of human capital and diversity, Accenture Professional Services, with 8,890 employees
(Best for Flexibility category)
"We started offering flexible working in 2009 and now offer flexible working to all our employees. The take-up is that we have 52% of UK employees on some sort of flexible working. We are also very innovative with technology. And that has pretty much revolutionised the way we work.
"The other thing we focus on is flexibility within people's career paths. In our consulting workforce, we recognise that people might have a change in circumstance or different priorities. So we say 'you can choose to stay at the same level for three years'.
"That way they don't have the pressure of the rapid promotion career model. Usually, it works best for people with dependants, either family or elderly parents.
"We offer flexibility in the way people work and in their career choices, because we have recognised that we need to do this. We have invested heavily in them, so we would rather offer them this and have them stay with us."
3 Des Thurlby, HR director, Jaguar Landrover
Manufacturing: l4,920 employees
(Best for Career Progression)
"One of our biggest challenges is we don't get many women applying to join us, so we introduced a women's leadership programme, a career progression programme supported by the Skills Council.
"We put on a voluntary, women-only course, which 124 women here went through. It covered career development, coaching, leadership, confidence-building and networking: some of our most successful women got involved, as well as those from outside.
"Some 25 of the women who attended the course have been promoted in the past l8 months. As a proportion of that population, it is really encouraging.
"We don't get an awful lot of resistance at board level on flexible working. We have now got 36 men and l66 women working part-time or job-sharing. The big challenge for us is getting more women into manufacturing. It's still very cultural. They can apply for an apprenticeship at 16.
"But even then, less than 10% of applicants are women. It's a struggle. But we keep chipping away at it."
4 Shirley Creed, global corporate secretary, Dell Information & Communication, with 2,033 employees
(Best for Flexibility category)
"About two years ago, we did some desk monitoring and we started to see a pattern, people working a bit more remotely. But undercover, as it were - one of those things that it was easier to do if you worked for the right manager.
"So we put formality around it, educated managers about what was permissible, put in policies, looked at ergonomics. And, of course, made sure company information was secure if people worked at home.
"Now we have 800 Dell UK employees working fully remotely across four sites. They don't have a desk in their office, there's a hotel-type desk they can book if they wish. Wednesdays tend to be the day most people want to use the office.
"It is a big change from what we previously had. And it has been a matter of education for managers to accept it. We were very much an office-based environment.
"But things do change and you have to adapt to them. We also wanted to listen to what our people were saying. And we are continuing to do that, we are rolling this out globally. Yet it started in the UK. As an American company, for us to be rolling something such as this out is great."
5 Helen Danks, area facilities manager, West Mercia Police, 4,625 employees (Special Commendation in Best for Mothers category)
“I helped set up our maternity buddy scheme six years ago. At the time, I was diversity adviser. I now run things behind the scenes with a colleague, police inspector Melanie Crowther. We do it because we believe in it so strongly, mainly because the ‘buddies’ are all volunteers, supporting women here during and after pregnancy. Its success has led to many improvements in health and safety for pregnant women, particularly policewomen, on issues such as how breastfeeding mums can wear body armour.
“We’re a big force geographically, so our 35 buddies are spread out all over the place. One of the biggest issues around buddying is to remove that feeling of isolation. It is very scary coming back into work, whatever you’re doing. But for a police officer coming back into operational policing, it is even scarier. You have to hit the ground running when you’re facing the public and need to be totally in control.
“We have definitely raised the profile of maternity within the workplace. We have got the message across that it is OK for managers to get in touch with people on maternity leave to say: how are you? Managers are no longer scared to ask the questions that have to be asked.”