Meet the part-timers

Atkins | 05 Dec 2008 | Comments

Skilled employees are more demanding than ever and in shorter supply. Could the flexible approach to working patterns shown by companies like Atkins help attract the best talent?

When it comes to keeping today’s workforce happy, it seems the one size fits all approach to employee incentives is outdated. The 21st century employee is an individual, with needs that go beyond the traditional pay and pension package, and traverse the boundaries between work and home. Placing greater emphasis on work-life balance, today’s professionals expect more.

While the shift may have been a societal one, the trends have been facilitated and accelerated by technology. Having grown up with email, internet and wireless and mobile devices, generations leaving college in this decade understand that there are now few jobs for which they need to be shackled to an office or a nine-to-five lifestyle.

In sectors such as the built environment, companies face a shrinking talent pool and fierce competition to recruit skilled staff. A commitment to meeting employee needs can help ensure the very best people are on the payroll.

“Employers are increasingly offering work-life balance opportunities in an effort to be an employer of choice, and to recruit and retain the most talented people,” says Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the UK’s Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD).

The most recent CIPD survey of flexible working (2005) showed that 40 per cent of employers in the UK go beyond what is legally required of them and offer flexible working to all their employees.

“Employers are trying to develop workplaces where staff are motivated and committed, more likely to recommend the organisation to others and less likely to quit,” says Willmott. “Flexible working is a key element in that positive psychological contract.”

Atkins recently commissioned its own research to identify best practice in this area and to benchmark its practices against the rest of the industry. According to the survey, 63 per cent of companies in the built environment now consider flexible working to be a fact of life, almost half already offer flexi-hours, and 40 per cent allow staff to work from home. Some companies are going further still and adding generous holiday entitlement – up to 40 days leave in some cases – as a sweetener to attract recruits.

Stop the gap

Accommodating flexible working patterns is likely to prove increasingly useful, not only in encouraging new people through the door but in holding on to existing staff.

“We have nurtured a lot of talent over the years. It’s essential that we retain as much of that talent as possible,” says Alun Griffiths, group director of human resources at Atkins. That, he adds, doesn’t just mean finding a role for a flexible worker, but giving them real opportunities for career develop-ment. “Women, in particular, often feel they have to choose between having a family or progressing their career, but this doesn’t have to be the case.”

Anne Kemp has been on a flexible contract since she joined Atkins in 2006, starting out on between two and four days a week, and later working full-time during term-time, when her three children started school. Under her leadership, the geospatial team at Atkins has grown from 11 to 70 employees in the last few years, and built a considerable reputation within the industry. Kemp is proof that it isn’t only the employee that can benefit from such an arrangement.

Learning curve

Kemp’s experience at Atkins is far from unique. It’s clear that some in the industry have already made great strides in offering flexible working, and it’s high on the agenda of many more. Of those surveyed by Atkins, 88 per cent said that they offer, or are planning to offer, specific career development support for flexible workers.

However, in some respects the industry may still be playing catch up. The Atkins survey found that 17 per cent of firms in the built environment considered accommodating flexible working to be very challenging, compared to only six per cent of companies from all sectors. For any firm, the transition to flexible working patterns from long-established practices will require a degree of compromise and perhaps some teething problems.

“Trust can be an issue and it’s important that employers focus on output rather than time spent in the office,” says Willmott. “In order to motivate people in this modern, knowledge-intensive economy, that’s something all organisations will have to work at.”

Faced with an uncertain economic environment, some companies may back away from these challenges. However, employers that are committed to flexible working, like Atkins, are likely to find that the skilled staff they attract gives them and their clients a valuable advantage.

“We’re on a learning curve and it’s important that we don’t swap one kind of inflexibility with another,” says Griffiths.

“Employer and employee have to understand and accept the needs of each other,” he adds. “If we can make it work, experience shows it’s well worth the effort.”

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