Graham White, head of HR and organisational development at Surrey County Council, can work from home. He has the latest technology and can access his work files from his domestic computer. Nothing unusual in that – except that his home is in Ireland.
“I fly into Gatwick on Mondays and return home on Thursday or Friday,” he says. “And my employers are fully supportive. They know that I am the secondary carer at home.”
White is the embodiment of an approach to flexible working that has taken three years to put in place at the council.
“For us, flexible working is an umbrella statement,” he says. “We have recognised that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and so we offer arrangements such as personalised hours and annualised hours.”
He says this approach is already paying dividends in terms of retaining knowledge and attracting recruits.
“We’ve fought very hard to make sure that employees with family or caring responsibilities don’t have to take lesser jobs,” he says.
Sadly, White’s approach is not typical across the HR profession. Despite being the key architects of flexible work policies and family-friendly working, HR professionals are often the last to take them up, according to Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Business School.
“My view is that HR directors are probably not practising what they preach,” he says. “My gut reaction is that, given the demands on HR directors and their need to stay close to the board, a lot of them feel they have to be around.”
Cooper is not alone in suspecting that a long-hours culture is still prevalent in HR.
Around one in five HR managers works 14 hours or more above their contract every week, according to a survey by the Chartered Management Institute. And readers of PersonnelToday.com’s Just the Job e-mail bulletin continue to bemoan the lack of part-time and flexible opportunities for HR professionals.
Cooper is not surprised by this, as he has encountered a mixed take-up of flexible working among HR directors. “That’s not good enough,” he says. “A culture of flexible working should be about consistency.”
Set an example
If flexible working is to succeed, then HR has to set an example, demonstrating the links between different work patterns and business continuity, says Hampshire County Council director of HR Pauline Lucas.
Lucas is making major inroads into establishing flexible working at the council by offering initiatives such as nine-day fortnights, a wider deployment of technology to free employees from the office, and a mindset “that avoids micro management”.
As a result, the council’s workforce statistics are beginning to show a slight shift from part-time working to full-time, flexible working. Lucas hopes this change will, ultimately, improve the council’s service delivery.
“We don’t practise long-hours working,” explains Lucas. “I factor working from home into my diary. We need to be seen to be doing it too.”
One of the core issues with flexible working in HR is that the majority of the profession are women, who tend to have more career breaks and family commitments than their male counterparts. This can lead to it attracting a gender bias, according to diversity consultant Jo Cameron, the former training manager who appeared in TV show The Apprentice earlier this year.
“It is up to senior men to set an example and to request flexible working to prevent it being seen as something women do to suit their family situation,” she says.
At fast-food chain McDonald’s, both men and women in the HR department take advantage of flexible working. A senior HR manager is about to take full advantage of the company’s paternity leave policy, for example.
“HR is no different from any other department,” says UK vice-president (people) David Fairhurst. “By following our own policies, we are sending out an iconic message of permission.”
The McDonald’s attitude to flexibility includes term-time working for parents family contracts, where family members can cover for each others’ shifts and the option for student staff to transfer between restaurants local to their home and college during holidays and term time.
Fairhurst believes it is crucial for HR to set the tone in showing that flexibility can be offered equitably.
“Employees want provisions put in place to suit their situation,” he says. “They want an assurance that the provision doesn’t change. And flexibility has to be for all, not just for what I call the ‘time lords’ – the skilled people whose requests are never questioned.”
Fairness for all
The bottom line is that flexibility has to be seen to operate fairly. Compressed hours working, for example, can cause resentment among those who work conventional hours who feel they have to pick up the slack, even if this is not the case.
To avoid this situation, HR needs to match the needs of the individual to those of the business, advises deputy HR director of Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Trust, Rainey Faisey. “Our flexible working policy includes working at weekends, because we have to be available to staff and managers 24 hours a day,” she explains.
“I have a system where I work nearer my home one day a week to cut down on my travel time, but I wouldn’t expect to work flexibly for as long as I want to. I’d expect that flexibility to be monitored according to the needs of the service,” she says.
So will HR learn to practise what it preaches with flexible working? Only if it can truly tie in new working patterns with what the business needs, argues Carol Savage, managing director of specialist consultancy Flexworks.
“Flexible working has to be driven by business needs, but at the moment it’s driven by gender needs,” she concludes. “It is a blurring of work and home issues. HR has to work to tie it in with business objectives and prevent the issue feeling like a burden.”
Ultimately, HR must make the business understand the benefits of working flexibly, but without spending hours slaving away at a board report to prove the point.
When flexibility fails…
HR is not always the best example of flexible working policies, according to some readers of Just the Job, an e-mail bulletin service from PersonnelToday.com. A selection of comments from HR job candidates, below, proves there’s often a world of difference between policy and reality.
“I want to highlight my frustrations inthe limited number of organisations thatwill consider taking on part-time HR professionals,” writes Donna. “Recruiters are excited to talk to me as soon as they receive my CV, but as soon as I mention that I can only work three to four days a week, they run for the hills. I expectedmore from the HR profession – apparentlyI was wrong.”
“I went into a high-street recruitment agency to enquire about an ad for a regional HR manager,” writes Emma. “It was my day off so I had my son with me. I was immediately told that they were not looking for any more candidates. Then I was asked in a patronising tone whether I would like to get into HR work. I replied that I am already an HR manager and a lecturer in HR.”
“It took me five months of job hunting to persuade employers that I had children, not a lobotomy,” writes Caroline. “One company even told me that they had given the job to someone who had no children and would, therefore, be more flexible.”
“After a period looking after children, it seems I am unemployable,” writes Julie. “And this is despite making myself available in London on a part-time, full-time, ongoing and interim basis and being flexible about entry level – even going for posts that are nearly £10,000 below what I was earning before having my children. I am more than qualified for the posts I am going for, with a BA, MA in Human Resource Management and seven years’ HR experience.”