Breaking the glass ceiling

Brent Council’s flexible working policies have helped more women move into top positions.

With the daily reminders of the UK’s long- hours culture, childcare crisis and burn-out epidemic, it is hard for many to imagine a day in which they could pick up their children from school, catch their favourite soap and still play a productive and essential role in serving the local community.

Employees at Brent Council, however, are now enjoying the right to request remarkably flexible working conditions, with the employer exceeding the demands of legislation by allowing all staff to ask for less rigid working arrangements.

The policy is proving understandably popular with staff, but it has also had another key benefit by dramatically increasing the number of women joining the ranks of senior management since its introduction.

Since the programme’s launch in 2001, there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of women in the upper echelons of the council, with 40 per cent of senior roles now filled by women.

In fact, the organisation was ranked second only to Microsoft in a recent survey of the best equal opportunity employers by the Business in the Community Group.

Head of corporate diversity at Brent, Tracy Walters, who herself now works flexibly and was responsible for delivering the scheme, stresses that while diversity was a key factor, the plan was also about better working conditions for the organisation as a whole.

“We were aware that Brent needed to become an employer of choice and that meant offering the best possible working conditions for staff. This is even more crucial in London because we do suffer from shortages and it can be difficult to recruit,” she says.

“It’s also a diversity issue. But I wanted the policy to be more inclusive than just family-friendly – so it could be something for everybody in the organisation. It needed to go beyond staff with children so that everyone at the council could benefit from flexible working.”

Under the initiative, every member of staff is allowed to apply for flexible working and is entitled to choose from a range of options, including everything from part-time to compressed hours. Ultimately, the line manager will decide if the organisation can accommodate an individual request, although there is an appeal system if an individual feels unfairly treated. However, Walters says there have been just two appeals since the scheme was launched.

“It’s a benefit, not a right. So employees have to think about the impact on customers, managers and all their colleagues. We’ve tried to create a culture of responsibility,” she says.

The project started out as trial run, after the council was awarded money from the DTI’s Work Life Balance Challenge Fund to pilot the scheme in the social services department.

“The Government has been very supportive of work-life balance in the past few years, and the DTI has been determined to reduce the long-hours culture. It [social services] is our largest department and has the highest percentage of women so we used the money from the DTI and the council matched it,” explains Walters.

After the success of the pilot scheme, the initiative was rolled out across the rest of the workforce, following a number of training and awareness-raising events.

Initially, there was a seminar on work-life balance for around 100 staff. Managers were consulted and further seminars were held, while the aims of the programme were explained and advertised in the in-house magazine.

“We were explaining the options and our plans to staff, while at the same time, HR was informing managers on how to prepare for the launch. Managers have been educated to deal with this, and a lot of that was about raising their confidence in handling these sort of requests. In my experience, managers can sometimes dismiss a request out of hand, so we’ve used training to change this mindset and make sure they are trusted,” she says.

There were specific briefings for members of the HR team, to help them learn how to advise both staff and managers to use the system, start discussions and resolve disputes. The council also developed a database of all the managers that had experience with part-time staff so their knowledge and expertise could be shared across the organisation.

The policy was supported from the very top of the organisation, and when the chief executive decided to work a compressed week, it acted as a signal to the rest of the organisation. This was compounded when the leader of the council, Ann John, also started working more flexibly.

“When this happened, it was green light to staff, which showed they were allowed to juggle their commitments.

“I think women found it hard to make the decision to move into senior management because they felt they would lose out in other areas of their life – this was where the career ceiling started.”

However, Walters is keen to emphasise the impact of the scheme beyond women with children and says it is having a positive impact on the whole workforce.

“Men are deciding to work flexibly as well and that’s hugely important. They have the right to enjoy this as well. I think in the past they might not have felt comfortable with asking to work flexibly.”

Case study: Janet Kear

Janet Kear has worked at Brent for the past 12 years and was born and brought up in the area. She has three children and now works part-time as the service development officer for the Transportation Service Unit.

“For me, the most important aspect of the way the council has handled the scheme is that it is available to all – men and women – and is not focused solely on the needs of parents. This means the scheme is completely fair and all staff are equally entitled to ask for variations to their working patterns.

“Before the work-life balance scheme was introduced, flexible working was seen as only applicable to women with children and this caused a certain amount of resentment, not only from the men, but from other women as well. The other important factor is that the scheme does not constrain people to picking from predetermined patterns. It is completely flexible providing you can reach an agreement with your manager,” she says.

“My director is happy for me to juggle things around as long as work is delivered to deadlines and targets are met. I am able to work from home if I have complex reports to write, and I have a laptop which connects back to the Brent computer network so I can pick up e-mails and work at anytime of the day or night.”

She says that by formalising the process and using an HR team to support it, managers in the organisation are now better equipped to facilitate flexible working.

“The fact that the scheme has been formally accepted and promoted by the council has also been important, as this has given managers the confidence to approve patterns of working that have not previously been ‘the norm’,” she says. “I think the more widespread these variations become, the more the managers’ confidence will grow.”

Case study: Marianne Ecker

Now the corporate employee and organisational development manager, Marianne Ecker has worked at the council for three and a half years. Under the new arrangements, she now does a 26-hour week in four short days – working from home on Friday mornings.

By working more flexibly, she feels her career has flourished because her current role has expanded from a sole specialist to managing a four-strong learning and development team. It has also improved her life in general and, as well as holding down a challenging job, she is able to have a full family life.

“I’ve had a second child while working at Brent. I’ve got two children under six and I’m working shorter days, which means I’ve been able to collect my son from school by coming in early to write reports and deal with the usual issues – all while beating the rush hour traffic,” she says.

“As women still have the majority of caring responsibilities in most cases, the policy is particularly useful for women. We’re in a majority in the workforce in Brent so it has extra relevance for women. It’s a fair system because the council has been really proactive in opening it up, not just to women with caring responsibilities, but to all staff.

Despite extolling its benefits, Ecker warns that this way of working does not suit all types of people and those who apply should consider their capacity to cope and enjoy it.

“All our jobs are demanding so it’s important to think the decision through very carefully,” she says.

About Brent Council

Brent Council is located in north-west London and works for around 264,000 residents. There are more women than men in the area and it is one of only two boroughs in the UK where the black and Asian community is larger than the white community. The council employs more than 4,000 staff and all of them now have the right to request more flexible working conditions.

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