Firms offering innovative options for working families are coming up trumps

Blog posts

16 Jun 2015

Mary MercerMary Mercer

Today, Working Families and IES announce the winners of the 2015 Top Employers for Working Families awards. There are some fantastic and worthy winners and highly commended organisations this year. Having helped to set up the awards, I have been a judge every year since launch, and I am always so impressed by the creativity organisations employ to find flexible solutions to meet the needs of employees as well as offering real business benefits to the employer.

For example, this year the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) won Best New Flexible Working Initiative for their work in bringing people back to work after periods of extended maternity or special unpaid leave. The FCO offers staff long breaks of up to 10 years for maternity leave or leave to go with a partner on an overseas posting. Staff are then able to bid for work on return but the FCO found people who had been out for a long time struggled in interview and were often looking for something really flexible.

As a result, the FCO identified projects that could be done by people in their own preferred hours, in most instances working from home. They then launched a pilot aimed at testing the benefits – to both the organisation and staff – of providing an alternative route back to work, other than directly through the challenging and competitive FCO internal and largely full-time jobs market. The FCO hoped that this route would encourage more staff to transition back into work in a smoother way and tap into a highly skilled and under-used pool.

The pilot was also designed to provide additional flexible resources that could be used by teams across the FCO to deliver priority areas of work. Staff who participated in the pilot phase were positive about the experience and feedback from host departments was that the pilot provided a steady flow of personnel to busy departments, adding value and targeting people who wanted to come back into the workforce.

I was also impressed, as I always am, by the winner in the Innovation category, which this year was awarded to both Deloitte and the Ministry of Justice. Deloitte have demonstrated that sometimes ’innovation’ can be a simple and straightforward approach which is then incredibly successful in attracting and retaining the best people and giving a competitive advantage. Deloitte’s ‘Time Out’ initiative, which allows employees to take an extra four-week block of leave each year, has proven to be a popular addition to their agile working practices. As the organisation puts it: ‘It helps our people to achieve a better balance between their career and other commitments, such as family. Our people love it.’

Time Out was introduced in summer 2014 in recognition of the fact that people were balancing family and other personal commitments alongside demanding careers. Time Out allows any employee with over a year’s service to request a four-week block of extra leave, unsalaried but with continuing benefits allowances, to be taken at a mutually acceptable time. Employees can request a Time Out each year. All return to work completely re-energised.  Time Out has been very successful in supporting the organisation’s women in leadership ambitions, with 55% of the requests coming from female employees, the majority of whom are operating at the level of manager or above – a critical female talent retention point for Deloitte.

Deloitte’s co-winners are The Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) ‘commuter hubs’. The impetus came from the MoJ engagement survey, which showed that staff wanted a better work-life balance. The issue seemed to be acute in London where many employees faced a long commute, some up to three hours each way, each day. There was also a need to reduce and rationalise estate costs.

The MoJ saw an opportunity to act on this through ‘the Way We Work’ programme (TW3,) a part of Civil Service reform concentrating on introducing smarter ways of working. The idea of commuter hubs was developed, with the aim of providing a guarantee of a desk in a convenient location to an individual’s home, meaning they would spend less time commuting but maintain all the advantages of being in the main office, such as interaction with other staff, a desk and visibility. This allowed people to have a clear distinction between home and work life and assisted those with caring and family responsibilities in particular. It also supported people who are not able or do not want to work from home, to have a choice. The initiative was facilitated by the deployment of modern technology, PCs and mobile phones, thereby enabling the individual rather than the space.

As well as making the organisation a better place to work for existing employees and attracting new ones, the initiative has enabled the MoJ to reduce its running costs. Specifically, over the last four years the MoJ has significantly reduced its London HQ presence: by the summer of 2015 the number of holdings will have reduced from 18 to two, and there will be just one by 2016. The ‘1 HQ’ project will save the department at least £7 million per annum over the course of the next 10 years.

A mention must also go to iCrossing, a multiple award winner this year. They won the Best for  all Stages of Motherhood award for their introduction of a new initiative called ‘Together Time’, which aims to promote a culture of flexible working for everyone with caring duties, regardless of whether they work part- or full-time. Together Time allows staff to take two hours out of their day for caring duties without having to use their annual leave. Examples where this might apply include going to see their child’s nativity play, going to a school assembly in the middle of the day or taking an elderly relative to the doctor’s. By launching Together Time, iCrossing hopes to engender a culture where staff openly balance home with work life and celebrate family life at work. Staff know that they are trusted to get their work done and manage their own time, which enhances their loyalty to iCrossing as an employer.

iCrossing also offers a mentoring scheme, iFamily, which matches new mums or mums-to-be with seasoned parents who can guide them through their re-entry into the workplace. At least half of the mentors are dads, which underlines to mums that, at iCrossing, dads are supported to take an equal role in parenting. iCrossing hopes that mums feel empowered and strengthened by this attitude.

iCrossing is achieving its business aims of attracting and retaining women. In 2009, the workforce was 35 per cent female;  this figure has increased to 44 per cent in 2014. The average length of service for mums on the iCrossing executive board is eight years and six months, proof that the company retains working mums at the top and supports them on their way up there.

Of the mothers at iCrossing, 50 per cent work flexibly, further evidence that the flexible working ethos is culturally embedded. The expectation is that this figure will rise to 61 per cent this year.

The Best for Mothers award has really come a long way, from the early days when fridges to store breast milk and a real focus on babyhood seemed to be at the cutting edge. It is great to see initiatives focus on family rather than just mums and babies.

I was really impressed this year, as were all the judges, to see organisations really get to grips with metrics. Real evidence that all these excellent initiatives are attracting and retaining staff and contributing to an organisation’s bottom line.

Congratulations to all the 2015 finalists and winners, who can all be found, with case studies, on the Top Employers website.