Feature from the Northern Echo
With the Coronavirus situation more and more companies are seeing the advantage of their employees working from home.
However just a few years ago flexible working was just a pipe dream for many employees who were struggling with a constant juggle of various homelife responsibilities.
Times are changing to the benefit of both companies and their teams.
One of the first off the block with this approach was a Tees Valley success story, Visualsoft.
At first glance as one of the region’s fastest growing tech businesses with 300 people across three UK offices, flexible working may seem to be hard to achieve. However, Alix Bolton, head of people at the business and Chair, Chamber Women’s Leadership Forum explains, it was inspired by first-hand experience of Visualsoft founder Dean Benson.
She said: “Our MD was doing school run when he met a colleague who was really rushing to get their child into school so they wouldn’t be late for work. He realised it wouldn’t make a difference to their work if they were a few minutes later but still did their job well. From that point onwards he let people have flexibility in their times at work. We were even ahead of Virgin in giving people agile working and it was great PR,‘ Benson Beats Branson’ were the headlines!
“That was five years ago and now the approach has developed. We let our teams figure out what works best for them, as long as they deliver excellent work, on time. The rest is all fair game.
“The general principle to flexible working is that you will still work your contracted weekly hours (37.5 hours per week for example), but you have the ability to work these hours in a way that gives you and the business the flexibility to achieve a happier work-life balance.
“Flexible working is guided by the Line Manager and it is ultimately at their discretion of how it’s managed within the team or department. We pride ourselves on a culture of trust. We've come a long way in the last two years in particular and have also introduced a brand new set of internal cultural values, which all staff had a say in.
“We care about our employee happiness which is why we also have an open door policy and welcome ideas or suggestions that make Visualsoft a better place to work.
“We've also recently had to reset our approach to flexible working. As the business had experienced huge growth over the years since flexible working was launched in 2015, there were a few people who were still used to the business being a lot smaller and everyone is bound by the same rules. This is almost impossible in a larger business as different teams have different ways of working and different KPIs, etc..
“In the past we were automated to see bums on seats = productivity, but this simply isn't the case in modern businesses. Businesses aren't bound by a strict 9-5 any longer and the advancement of technology makes it easier to carry out work in a more agile way, not in a fixed location.”
North East England Chamber of Commerce President Lesley Moody from AES Digital, sees the huge advantage of flexible working and as a result adopted it as one of the key themes of her time leading the organisation.
She is a passionate advocate of the many advantages being flexible brings to both companies and employees. In her business, staff are able to work from home, even when that home is in another part of the world.
Lesley Moody said: “We have always found by treating our team with an understanding attitude we get commitment back ten-fold. It has never been a problem for us if people needed time off for caring responsibilities. We’ve always understood you can’t do your job properly if you’ve got difficulties at home that need to be sorted out.”
The legal profession is renowned for working long hours but EMG solicitors based in Durham is breaking the mould by having flexible conditions and attracting high profile talent as a result.
This firm was created by Emma Gaudern in 2014 when she found it a struggle to manage her career and two young children. Now EMG has experienced year on year growth and just under 40% of staff are part-time and women.
Emma explained: “We have a culture which is the exact opposite of presenteeism. Our staff are able to work from home with ease as we’ve got cloud-based, paperless operating systems. Our support for staff also includes having paid sick leave when people have to care for dependants. There is also enhanced maternity, paternity and adoption leave for our employees which is not always the norm.”
There are now 49 members of staff at the firm with a culture of community engagement as well as flexibility.
Hospital trusts are not usually associated with flexibility due to the constraints of providing a service 24/7 but it is becoming more feasible. In fact,in recent years, remote working has become increasingly important due to rapid technological advances including better internet access as well as smart phones, tablets and social media.
Chamber member Nuffield Health is the UK’s largest healthcare charity. In 2019, it published new research into the advantages and challenges for employees and employers connected to remote working on stress, wellbeing and productivity.
Joanne Sterry, Healthcare Account Manager with Nuffield Health has been with them more than 15 years.
She works full time and has a young family. Her job involves travelling across the North East and Cumbria visiting GP surgeries and hosting various educational and engagement events connected to Nuffield’s medical and healthcare services. She also works from the hospital and from home. Joanne says she divides her week 70/30 with three days on the road and two based in the hospital to plan activities and stay in touch with colleagues.
She said: “One of the main attractions about Nuffield Health as an employer is the flexibility they offer. I’m a mum with a young family and working fulltime. As long as I’m prepared to be flexible and meet my commitments, I get that back in return. So, if I need to take time out to be somewhere with the children, there isn’t a problem.
“For example, because my job involves travel, I might work late or start earlier, having that flexibility and autonomy takes the stress away and enhances my work/life balance.”