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Bending the rules
 
In the battle to recruit the best employees, flexible working can be a powerful weapon in a charity’s armoury. Amena Saleem looks at the benefits of implementing a flexible working policy
 

In a recent survey, many young workers admitted they would shun a pay rise in favour of more control over where and how they work. This should be welcome news to the charity sector which struggles to match the salaries and perks of private firms, but can effectively employ flexible working as a weapon in the battle for recruitment and retention.

In fact many charities are already doing just that, and with great success. And if HR directors take note of the survey findings, many more may soon follow suit.

Carried out in February, the survey from Microsoft Windows Mobile found that nearly half of the under-25’s questioned said being able to determine their own working practices was more appealing than a higher salary offer from a rival company.

Laura Williams, senior researcher at the Work Foundation, an organisation committed to improving the quality of working life, says there is plenty of evidence to back up the findings. “Many graduates we survey say they look at what work/life policies are on offer at different companies when they’re looking for their first jobs after university,” she says.

She recalls interviewing the chief executive of a small charity who described the process as a trade-off. “She said people might not get paid so well at the charity as at a private firm, but they could work part-time or at home, and that was worth an amount of money to some people. They were willing to earn less if they had a better quality of life.”

Williams says flexible working is defined as “being able to work within hours or locations that suit a person’s work and outside-work responsibilities”. This could include starting and finishing work earlier, working from home on certain days of the week, job sharing or working part-time.

Changing demographics mean there are more women in the workforce, bringing with them the reality of needing flexibility for childcare or to care for elderly relatives, and people are also working to an older age.

Carly Connelly, marketing director of recruitment consultants the Principle Partnership, says charities that don’t embrace flexible working will bypass this ever widening pool of workers. “Offering flexible working makes you more attractive in the marketplace,” she says. “If you’re rigid about your working practices, then you won’t necessarily attract the best candidates. There’s a lot of talent, especially among women returning to work, that you’ll miss out on.”

Legislation has started to address the issue. The Employment Act 2002, which came into force in April 2003, gave working parents of children under the age of six and disabled children under the age of 18, the right to apply to work flexibly. This year, that right will be extended to workers who care for elderly relatives.

Many charities, however, go beyond what is required by law, offering flexible working packages to all employees, regardless of whether or not they have caring responsibilities. The Royal National Institute for the Deaf, for example, does not have a formal policy on flexible working but, says executive director HR, Vicky Hemming, managers will listen to all requests and do their best to accommodate them.

“Flexible working is something we’re very committed to,” she says. “As a charity, 74 per cent of our workforce is female and that brings with it an awful lot of people with caring responsibilities, but men also want that kind of flexibility.

“Flexible working is really important to assist in recruitment and retention, and we try to offer flexibility and don’t assume one size fits all.”

Hemming believes there is a “modern feeling” that achieving a balance between home and work life is becoming more important than pay and bonuses, and she feels that charities can tap into this to tempt workers away from private companies.

“We have less money to spend than the private sector, but we’re much better at doing something with nothing,” she says. “We’re better at being focused on winning hearts and minds because that’s the only way we can recruit; by being more creative and offering what we can afford, which is flexible working.”

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It is a tenet also practised at Anchor Trust, a not-for-profit organisation which provides housing and support services for the elderly. Flexible working packages for employees include the option of ‘zero hour contracts’, giving staff the option to choose their hours to suit them. Field-based staff can work at home when catching up with paperwork, and are given broadband connection and access to Anchor’s network.

Jenny Sawyer, Anchor’s head of people strategy, says that although the organisation has policies and procedures in place around flexible working, the practice is essentially based on mutual trust between staff and managers.

She adds: “I think flexible working is one of the main attractions for people from the private sector coming to work for Anchor. Feedback from staff has shown us that flexible working is very important to them in enabling them to work to suit their lifestyle and alter their hours according to personal circumstances.

“This means we have staff who have a good work/life balance, are happier in their roles and therefore more likely to stay with us in the long term. We also find that in being flexible in our approach to working hours, staff can be flexible in turn, giving more support to the business when the need is highest.”

Emily Elliott, HR officer at the National Trust, agrees. The Trust offers staff an ‘annualised hours contract’, which means they are given a set number of hours to work in a year and can complete those hours when it suits them, working harder at peak times and taking time off when things slow down.

“It needs careful management on both sides, between the line manager and the individual, and there’s a great deal of common sense involved, but the benefits are obvious,” she says. “It gives us a healthier and happier workforce, allowing people to work within their means and not feeling pressurised to work within set hours. We get people who are more focused on what they’re doing because they’re less stressed in their jobs.”

Mike Emmott, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s employee relations advisor, concedes that managers will not be able to accommodate every worker’s request for flexible working but, where they can, the policy will reap dividends.

“We did an online survey in 2006, and it showed that flexible workers are more emotionally engaged, they’re working more effectively, they’re more enthusiastic, more satisfied, more likely to speak positively about the organisation they work for and less likely to quit. It’s a win-win situation all round.”


Flexibly Working Employees

Nicola Evans, principal development manager, The Peabody Trust: job share

Nicola Evans and Susan May both worked full-time at Peabody before leaving at the same time to have children. They returned part-time, then applied for their current role on a job share basis nearly four years ago.

Evans says: “We manage a team and some staff were a little apprehensive at first about our job share, but I think we’ve changed people’s opinion. They now say the organisation has got two people for the price of one.

“They can see the energy we bring to the job because we each have a three day week, with one day overlapping. I think our productivity is really high because of the energy we have, and because there are two of us to problem solve. We both feel really positive about it.”

Bernadette Stokoe, head of customer engagement, Anchor Housing Services:
part-time and works from home


“I live in Brighton, and that’s very important to me. I wouldn’t have wanted to commute to London, so working from home gives me the chance to work for Anchor which is great, because I’m very committed to their aims.

“Working part-time allows me to do other projects and fit in other commitments. It’s a fantastic way of working and it makes me very loyal to the organisation. They really do value me as a person, and they trust me because there’s no-one checking my hours. That makes me want to give my best.

“For Anchor, offering flexible working makes them much more attractive and gives them a wider range of people to choose from when recruiting.”

Shirley Jones, PA to the chief executive, RNID: four day week

Shirley Jones applied for a full-time post, but mentioned at her interview that she’d like to work part-time because of her commitments to her local church. She has Wednesdays off.

Jones says: “It’s a huge benefit, and it gives a stronger flexibility and willingness on my part, particularly as in this post it’s not the most convenient request to have made. It makes me want to go that extra mile for my employers.

“I’ve worked in the deaf community for a number of years so when this job came up I really wanted it, but my church work is also very important to me and I didn’t want to give that up. If I’d been offered this job on a full-time basis, I honestly don’t know if I would have taken it.

“The flexibility was more important to me than looking for a job that gave me free membership to a gym or private healthcare.”

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