One of the keys to ensuring diversity in the workforce is to allow for flexible working. Through flexible working, people can make changes to the hours, times and locations they work, without affecting their income and career progression nor affecting the business.
Employees are able to better fit their career in with family life or other commitments, and the employer gets the benefit of addressing skills shortages and retaining staff.
Real-world example of flexible working
The vast majority of PwC New Zealand’s Transfer Pricing team have been working flexibly for the past three years. During this time they have managed to recruit and retain key talent as well as achieve growth of more than 50 percent.
Erin Venter was a senior manager in the team before she left on maternity leave in 2011. At that point, everyone in the team worked full-time, five days a week in the office with no one working flexible hours.
When she returned in 2012, the opportunity for Erin to lead the team arose with the previous leader transferring to Australia.
Transition to flexibility
Initially, Venter worked part-time, four days in the office and still had some time at home with her daughter. Her hours in the office were different from the standard hours again by being more flexible, such as being able to work 7.30am to 4pm.
However, while it was great to be given the option to work part-time, Erin was finding that her role required much more and it meant she was effectively delivering a full-time role but being paid only for the actual hours she was physically in the office.
With support from a female partner, Venter raised this with PwC and the company quickly responded by adjusting her employment terms to reflect her contribution to the business rather than on the hours she was ‘physically present’ in the office.
She now works full–time, yet she has the flexibility to work four days a week in the office and one at home, fitting her hours around her home commitments.
This change has created a flow-on effect for Venter’s subsequent hires to her team, who also work flexibly.
“Over time, with recruiting, all the great candidates we came across happened to be mums coming back into the workforce – and in our area, it’s really hard to find experienced people. If you get to have a great person for three days a week, to us it is much better than a poor performer five days a week. Also, for most of our team, the ability to work either part-time or flexible hours was paramount and therefore they wouldn’t have taken the job with us if we had only offered full-time.”
She says most hires to the team happen to be lateral recruits – that is, they’ve achieved senior levels outside the organisation prior to joining the team.
How do you run a flexible office?
In terms of logistics of running the business, Monday and Thursday are the only days all team members are in the office, with Monday being work in progress (WIP) day.
Venter says efficiency and “getting on with the job” is a natural top priority with the whole team, because any time wasted will impact on their time spent at home.
It did take time to establish a system for running a 100 percent flexible office. For example, some staff initially worked Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday but found it was better for business to switch to Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. This was because clients often make contact either at the start or end of the week, so working one of those days ensured staff weren’t constantly responding to emails while at home. Others work five days a week but on shortened hours, so that they can coordinate school pick-up and drop-off.
Venter says running the office efficiently is about clear communication and being aware of each team member’s situation. A supportive, close-knit culture is a must.
“It’s sometimes hard, I’m not going to lie, but it works for us because we are a close, small team. We help each other, pick up each other’s work. We’re very conscious of each other’s outside commitments, and so if someone has a sick child and can’t make it that day, that’s okay, everyone understands. There’s no unnecessary competition – work is a sacrifice because we’re not at home with our kids, so we are all about just getting the work done.
“It’s not always easy to juggle flexible working hours but it can work, and it’s better to have great people for less time in the office than to not have them at all. If PwC said no one was allowed to work flexibly, then we would struggle to have a transfer pricing team!”
Benefits to the company
If a company is willing to be flexible, employees will reward it with loyalty. Staff retention remains high, and skill shortages are easier to address. In turn, the employee has the opportunity to balance their career with other commitments – without their career suffering as a result.
“Because PwC has given me the opportunity to work flexibly, I really appreciate that and therefore it makes me feel that PwC is investing in me, and as a result, I am more committed to them.”
Venter says in professional services firms, the staff makeup at junior levels begins roughly with a male to female ratio of 50:50, but females feature less and less the higher the rank – mainly because of childrearing. She says many women just don’t come back because they see the balancing act as too hard – or they believe they’ll hit a glass ceiling as a part-timer.
“There is the perception that if you’re part time you have limited options,” says Venter.
But that’s not the case for this team. Most people are already senior on the team, and for others there have already been promotions while working part-time. Erin does not believe her career is limited because she works flexible hours.
“To me it’s all about what value you add to the business rather than how many hours you are sitting at your desk,” says Venter.
“I think people just accept that as a part-timer they will stay as a manager so they will never push for a promotion. But it’s all mind set: company-wide perception and an individual’s perception of themselves.”
Role modelling can change expectations
Venter always knew she would not work standard hours once she had kids, because of her early role models.
She recalls that when she worked at PwC in London, three of the senior people she worked for were working mothers working flexible hours.
“The concept seemed well advanced in the UK. They were promoted to partner even though they were working flexibly or part-time. So I never thought flexible working in this environment was a big deal because I’d seen it work.
“In New Zealand, I’ve noticed few partners are women, so we still have a way to go. A lot of friends still think it’s too hard or that they have no choice about how they work – that it’s five days or nothing.”
She says in London she regularly worked from home, whereas in New Zealand she senses an attitude that you need to be in the office.
She says in building her flexible working team, the critical piece has been unwavering support not only from female partners but also male partners.
“It always helps when there is a general consensus that we need to start looking at work differently. Not just for working mums, but all employees that would benefit from flexible working. I have a reason for needing flexibility in my work, but regardless of whether you’re male, female, have kids or not, flexibility arrangements need to be further advanced in New Zealand.”