Flexible working for international frontiers

Gillian Daines, Innovation Director at Forster Communications, spoke to Relocate Global about flexibility for all in a global, tech-enabled workplace.

Relaxed employee working from home
The theme of 2017 the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) Annual Conference, which took place in November, was embracing the future world of work. The multi-generational workforce, societal demands for more sustainable and transparent businesses, new technologies and globalisation are driving more agile and responsive people practices.International businesses and those managing international assignments are interested in how they can communicate with their global teams effectively, especially as well-being rises up the agenda for international assignees and globally mobile employees.The rise of flexible working approaches is one product of these changes. When it is handled well, the evidence suggests, flexible working can offer a win-win situation.A survey cited by the CIPD, the professional body for human resources (HR) and people development, found that 73 per cent of employers who offered flexible working reported a positive impact on staff motivation and engagement.London-based Forster Communications, a social change PR firm, is one employer that recognises the value of flexibility. It is embracing flexible working practices as a core part of its value proposition for its 25 employees, and for mutual benefit.

The future world of work

One of the key drivers behind Forster’s approach is the opportunities that come from being part of an international network.“The workplace is becoming more global,” said Gillian Daines, the company’s innovation director, as she prepared to address delegates at the CIPD conference. “We are more closely connected and there is technology to help with that. There is less need to fly around the world and do business in person.“From the perspective of employee well-being and how work and businesses are run, that comes with pros and cons. The pros are that you can have clients all over the world and you can talk to them at 2am, and that’s all great.“At the same time, though, you have to be mindful of your employees and how that 24-hour global workplace may affect them.”Another change is cultural in terms of what people expect at work. “There used to be much more fixed working hours,” Ms Daines commented. “We realise that now we can’t always fix a breakfast meeting and expect that to suit everyone’s schedule. This is all about looking after people and being productive. But at the same, it’s also about making these wider opportunities work for our business.”

Rebooting flexible working

To leverage the opportunities and manage the well-being aspects, Forster Communications has adopted a broad approach to flexible working that goes beyond reduced hours. Led by line managers and employees, the company’s practices cover temporary as well as permanent arrangements.“The overarching idea we want to talk about at the CIPD Conference is that when we think about flexibility for working, it’s much more than just about being part-time,” explained Ms Daines.“I think that’s a very old-fashioned way of looking at things. Flexibility can equal adjusted hours and people working in different locations, whether that’s at home or in another office, in a client’s office. But, personally, I’ve taken international clients’ calls at 7pm or 8pm in the evening. I don’t want to be doing those in the office, I want to do them at home, so it might mean I leave the office a bit early.“I adjust my working week when I have a client with those needs. That might be for a few weeks or a few months, or even just on that particular day. But as an organisation, having that flexibility is something we can just do without having to go through a process of sign off.“I think having the kind of flexible culture where that is accepted and understood – and where people are protected around their working time being used in the most productive way – is something we have thought about more in the last couple of years, as being part of a global network has started to affect our business.“That has us thinking about flexibility in a much more holistic way rather than just thinking about it in terms of ‘I want to have Tuesday afternoons off’. It can be much more than that, for example, a temporary scenario that is business driven and personally driven. There are lots of reasons attached to it.”

Benefits of flexibility

This business-led approach, which marries employees’ and operational needs, has opened recruitment up to a whole new talent pool at every level. It has also seen take-up grow since rollout.The number of Forster Communications employees regularly working from home has increased by 32 per cent in the last two years to 54 per cent. Formal flexible working arrangements have increased by 15 per cent in the same period.The work Forster undertakes with its clients focuses on positive social change. “That’s the nature of our business,” said Ms Daines. “It makes sense that the way we run internally as an organisation needs to ‘walk-the-talk’ on those kinds of good social principles. Part of that is about being a good employer and looking after our employees, being progressive as a business, and paying attention to changing employee and social needs, reflecting and embracing those changes.”

The line managers’ role

Supporting this responsive approach is the company’s talent development and review programme. This encourages employees, supported by their managers, to organise one-to-ones at a time relevant to them – a minimum of every three months – rather than at set intervals throughout the year.During these meetings, every employee can request flexible working arrangements. In some instances, for example, if the employee wishes to shift working hours within the core hours of 9am and 5pm, the request can be implemented straightaway.
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More permanent adjustments like asking for a laptop to work from multiple locations, or requests to work from home on a more formal basis, may require more line manager and director involvement to ensure that business and client needs will continue to be met.

Diversity and inclusion

In addition to supporting the business, flexible work at Forster Communications means that employees can manage their health and family circumstances in a manner that minimises stress and maximises well-being at work.This also enables the company to access talent, including those at senior levels, that would not otherwise be available.One employee, for example, has a chronic health condition, which means that, during a flare-up, she isn’t always able to get to the office for a particular time. Being able to adjust her hours during these episodes means she is still able to work full time as a productive team member.“That is what this way of thinking means: before, the opportunity to employ this person might not have been available to us,” explained Ms Daines. “We are benefiting from her skills, and that is the business benefit for us.“There are always going to be things going on that affect people’s lives. We have always – or for a long time – thought about parents. We are increasingly thinking now about people caring for older relatives as well.“We look at our employees’ personal needs in an individual way, and say ‘what is it you need so you can be your best and most productive at work?’ Is it about hours, is it about location, is it about flexibility within those things, or is it about technology? We then try and see how we can help that person work best and align that with our business goals.“We have a list of business opportunities and a list of employee needs, and then align those things. If it does not work on both sides, it will fall apart.”

Award-winning approach

As a progressive employer, Forster Communications has received awards for its work around employee well-being, which its flexible working policy supports.“Our bold statement around flexibility, inclusivity and well-being is that we make sure we can get the best people for the job by making flexible work available and possible in all personal circumstances,” Ms Daines explained. “Some of that connect to health. But in terms of well-being, a lot of it is connected to the day-to-day and trying to create working situations for people that they are comfortable with and where they can work best.“We enter the Vitality Health Healthiest Workplace award every year. [Forster Communications came first in the small business category in 2017 for the second year running.] That is how we track our well-being progress, how we focus on and think more about those issues.We have one initiative where we give people five minutes’ extra holiday for every walking commute or bike ride to work. That can be up to two-and-a-half days a year. That works as an incentive because we have asked people what they want.”

Switching off …

Forster Communications’ approach to flexibility and well-being also encompasses combating the always-on syndrome that was highlighted in the CIPD’s research on mobile devices, which reported that a third of employees who had remote access by digital means to their workplace felt they could not switch off in their personal time.As well as mindfulness training, the company encourages everyone to turn off their work emails and updates when they are at home or not working. This may mean line managers reminding junior team members that they do not have to be seen to be working outside office hours by sending emails.“I think it is the line managers’ and senior team’s responsibility to do that and take the lead by saying ‘you do not have to prove that you are doing a good job by looking busy’,” said Gillian Daines. “That’s partly a confidence requirement and partly because young people are used to being always connected and online. It is part of our responsibility and something that we need to keep an eye on.”

A realistic approach

Nevertheless, the reality of the modern-day workplace and of PR is that there will be out-of-hours work and intensive periods. “We work on a set period of time of 40 hours a week, so we invite people to take such time off in lieu,” Ms Daines said.“We ensure people aren’t working more than a maximum number of hours over a set period. Basically, if you’ve worked a weekend, in theory your working week could end on Wednesday. In practice, it doesn’t always work in that linear way, but we plan and make sure people are able to take that time back, have a break, and recharge as appropriate. People can always talk to their line manager if they are struggling, but, on the whole it works quite well.”Ultimately, flexibility at Forster Communications comes back to the business. “We want to be the business that people want to work for and are proud to work for, and that has sustainable success,” said Gillian Daines.“How we make our money and how we run ourselves internally are completely aligned; we can’t separate them. For us, flexibility is not about bending over backwards for employees, but about balancing business and individual needs.”


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