Keep it in the family

Flexible working has become a trusted HR tool in the UK, but now fast food giant McDonald’s is taking the concept one step further by piloting a scheme whereby employees can arrange emergency shift cover among themselves.

“It’s all about tailoring the employee value proposition,” explains vice-president of people David Fairhurst. “We pride ourselves on being a local, flexible employer, but wanted to take this to the next level. The answer was to devise the concept of ‘family contracts’.”

In essence, two people from the same family, who both work in the same McDonald’s restaurant, can apply for a family contract. This is a contract of work that allows both family members greater flexibility in working their shifts. In practice, if one person chooses not to work a particular shift for any reason, then their family member can work it for them.

This means that if, for example, a child within the family falls ill, then employees in the scheme have the flexibility to choose which family member will work the shift and which will assume caring duties.

“We think that this should benefit all of our employees, but particularly students, parents and those who care for dependants,” says Fairhurst.

Diverse workforce

The McDonald’s workforce is quite diverse – a third of hourly-paid employees are from an ethnic background and 37% of operational management are women. The company also realised that it employs at least 1,000 family members out of its 67,000-strong UK workforce.

“We identified that our best managers were actually giving flexibility to families such as giving them time off for family duties, and we thought why not formalise it?” says Fairhurst. “We realised it was a real point of leverage to say ‘McDonald’s will work around your hours’.”

Such an arrangement relies on a degree of trust as well as knowledge of what the shift entails and Fairhurst will only open the scheme to employees with at least three or four months’ service under their belts.

The contracts were drawn up for McDonald’s by Peter Norbury, employment partner at Eversheds.

Norbury says: “What is unusual here is that the employee is dictating when the work can be done. The employer is relying on their integrity.”

Norbury, based at Eversheds’ Manchester office, has heard of a similar, but informal practice in manufacturing workforces. “I have come across people [agreeing among themselves] who will look after the production belt,” he says. But he emphasises that, in those instances, the arrangement was informal.

“The big difference here is that McDonald’s is promoting the family contract,” he says. “That gives it an identity.”

Sidestepping problems

The scheme does lead to questions about the ramifications of the Working Time Directive, however, as what if a family member was overly supportive to a relative and took on too many hours?

“This isn’t likely as the hours of the Working Time Directive are worked out over a 17-week period,” says Norbury. “And the computerised payroll would be very alert to such things.

“Once the crisis was over, family members would be expected to get back to normal patterns. Don’t forget that people have got to want to make the arrangement. There is no compulsion to take a family contract even though they may have a right to one.”

Norbury points out the other key elements of the contract:

  • Employees can only substitute ‘sideways or down’ under the contract. So, for example, a crew member [junior-level employee] cannot take on a manager’s shift

  • People are paid the rate for the job they are trained for, not the rate for the shift they are covering

  • An employee who ‘acts down’ does not have their pay docked

  • For every hour you work in someone else’s job, your pay is protected

  • McDonald’s retains the right to remove people from the scheme.

Fairhurst believes the pilot scheme is a win-win situation for all parties and thinks six months is a suitable time period in which to trial it. “It’s a good enough period of time to pick up on life occurrences,” he says.

He acknowledges that some cynics will point out that families are prone to squabbles. “Families can have feuds and fallouts but these can happen in every walk of life,” he says. “The family contract could be an iconic signal. It could appeal to single parents or parents coming back into the workplace. Employers need to realise that people are going through many different changes in their lives.”

Would it work for other employers?

Roisin Curry, retail people director at Asda: “We have been offering a shift-swap scheme for at least seven years,” she says. “We keep it informal because we think that the more informal we make flexibility the more successful it can be.”

Curry points out that when an employer demonstrates flexibility they win trust and boost retention. “When we ask colleagues what makes them stay it is the flexibility,” she says. She believes that Asda, which has introduced fertility leave to cater for the trauma of IVF treatment, caters to different lifestyle demands.

Dianah Worman, adviser to the CIPD on diversity: “The family contract is a very unusual thing to do. But it is a way of making sure that people in families can cover their work-life balance challenges. It puts the ownership of making sure that the job doesn’t go unresourced that day onto the employee. It’s a novelty in a way, but why not have a go? Diverse situations need a diverse solution.”

John Wrighthouse, head of training and development for Nationwide, doesn’t see a need for such a policy but is comfortable with family members working together. He says: “At Nationwide it’s quite common to come across people who have family members also working here. We have a scheme called ‘people like us’ which encourages employees to refer family or friends for all different types of jobs.”

What the employees say

Here are the reactions of the first families to pilot the new contracts:

Dawn Wilson, 43, is a floor manager in Milton Keynes and works with her daughter Angela, 19: “There will be less worry of letting the shift down. It would allow more flexibility and freedom in cases of something unexpected or short-notice happening like doctors or hospital appointments.”

Mark Baker 21, who works with his brother Ashley, 18, in Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent: “The family contract will be great for when we have unexpected extra lectures at university.”

Denise Lowe, 40, who works with her sister Michelle Collins, 34 in Meir Stoke-on-Trent, says: “Sadly our dad is quite ill and the family contract will allow us to take turns when he needs our help.”

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