Interview with Sarah Jackson from Working Families

Both employers and employees can have reservations about flexible working arrangements, but Sarah Jackson of the charity Working Families believes they bring benefits for all parties, says Nicola Sullivan

Flexible working arrangements are often hailed as an antidote to employees’ stresses and strains in trying to balance their work and home lives. But government plans to extend the right to request flexible working to all parents with children up to the age of 16 years will not be fully effective unless the prejudices and fears of both employers and employees are overcome.

Many small businesses have argued that dealing with any extra requests generated by extending the right to ask for flexible working will be challenging, especially at a time when the government is also moving to increase the rights of agency staff. A survey of 446 companies published by EEF, the industry body for engineering and manufacturing employers, in April 2008, found that two-thirds of respondents had encountered practical problems with the existing legislation and most of them opposed plans to extend it.

But Sarah Jackson, chief executive of the charity Working Families, does not believe small businesses have a valid case for opposing the extension of flexible working rights, as proposed by the government and backed by the findings of Right to request flexible working: a review of how to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of older children conducted by Sainsbury’s HR director Imelda Walsh and published in May.

However, she says businesses should be given adequate support and guidance when implementing the legislation.

Informal arrangements
Business are not the only ones with reservations about flexible working. In some cases, employees fear it might jeopardise their chances of promotion. The Flexible working and performance study, conducted by Working Families in conjunction with Cranfield School of Management, which was published in April, highlighted the fact that many employees think flexible working could harm their career. Of the survey’s 3,580 respondents, 71% of those who worked flexibly chose to do so through an informal arrangement with their employer rather than by asserting their legal right to request to work in this way.

Jackson believes some employees may shy away from making a formal request because they fear that being labelled a flexible worker will compromise their career prospects. “If they are not labelled a flexible worker, people feel safer,” she says.

The research also revealed that 61% of respondents felt flexible working increased the quantity of work they could do. This view was backed up by 45% of managers, some of whom said staff continued to meet, and even surpassed, their objectives.

Jackson believes flexible working actually improves employees’ productivity and urges employers to dismiss theories that those who work flexibly are less committed to their jobs. “Classically, over the years, the idea has always been that somebody who wants to work part time is part-time committed to the organisation. The really strong message that comes over from the research is that flexible workers are far more committed to their organisation than people who are working conventional hours, and that is valuable for employers to know,” she says.

Flexible working also helps organisations to stay on top of a competitive global marketplace because it often enables them to draw from a wider pool of talent and, potentially, increase the hours they operate.

“We know there is a real skills gap and skills shortage, so flexible working gives employers the opportunity to buy in skills of people who might not be able to work conventional hours. There is a global market out there and employers need to provide their services 24/7. Nobody can work 24/7, but flexible working allows them to put together a workforce that provides the services they are selling when their customers want to buy them,” says Jackson.

Changing perceptions
Jackson has personally experienced the benefits of flexible working, having taken advantage of this way of working for the past 16 years since the birth of her first child. Not surprisingly, Working Families offers flexible working to all its staff, and just three of its 17 employees currently work a conventional week.

To ensure flexible working is fully effective, however, employers need to change some employees’ perception that the benefit is just aimed at women. To get this message across, Jackson says employers should ensure male staff are aware that the perk is available to men in lower-ranking positions, as well as senior executives.

“If you want the men in your workplace to believe you when you say flexible working is for everybody, you need to be finding role models, promoting them and getting the stories out,” she says.

But while flexible working arrangements may be topical, they are just one of the initiatives employers can offer to support working parents, says Jackson.

Other options include paid time off to deal with family emergencies, with staff agreeing to make the time up later or to still deliver required outputs in the time available; providing local information about childcare services; offering other sources of family support using communication tools such as staff noticeboard, company intranet, newsletters or a dedicated maternity pack, and setting up a workplace parents group.

Employers can also offer childcare vouchers, or provide enhanced maternity or paternity leave and/or pay. Jackson says Working Families, for example, offers male employees four weeks’ paternity leave on full pay, which is double the statutory two weeks.

She says providing support for working parents has far-reaching benefits outside the workplace because it gives staff more time to nurture their children’s emotional and educational development. It can also help to ease the pressure on carers with elderly or disabled dependants. Having their employer’s support also helps employees reduce their stress levels, maintain a healthy lifestyle and achieve a good work-life balance.

“The way we work today puts enormous pressure on families with both parents working, as is the case in most families nowadays, whether full time or part time. What you’re not getting is parents fully engaged in the education of their kids. Parents [often] also report stress-related pressures on their health because they are not eating properly, are drinking too much, smoking too much and not doing enough exercise,” says Jackson.

Whatever strategy employers choose, Jackson advises them to assess what their organisation’s goals are and how they expect staff to contribute towards meeting these.

Sarah Jackson, chief executive of Working Families, led the merger between Parents at Work and New Ways to Work to create the charity in 2004. Before the merger, she worked for Parents at Work as chief executive officer, having joined the organisation in 1994. She has become recognised as an expert in her field and has been heavily involved in campaigning around work-life balance.

During her time with Working Families, Jackson has chaired the judging panel for the Working Families Employer of the Year best practice awards and developed the national Best Boss competition, which is now in its eighth year.

In 2007, she was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for her services to quality-of-life issues. Before becoming involved with parents in the workplace, Jackson held senior roles for the conflict resolution charity International Alert and the health campaign Nicaragua Health Fund (now part of One World Action). Prior to that, she studied for a degree in classics and modern languages at Oxford University.

What is Working Families?
Working Families is a charity which campaigns to create a working environment that satisfies the needs of children, working parents and their employers. The organisation provides legal advice for lone parents, low-income families and parents of disabled children. It also offers parents information on employment rights and flexible working, as well as providing support to parents of children with disabilities.†

Of the charity’s 250 employer members, 55% are from the private sector and 45% from the public sector.

Working Families aims to help employers understand the benefits of work-life balance policies, and runs an annual awards programme to recognise best practice.

The charity’s projects include a Lottery-funded scheme to promote work-life balance to the charity sector that offers information and support to managers and trustees called Balancing Work and Home in the Voluntary Sector.

Another scheme, Quality of Life in the City, was launched in June following the charity’s research into the work-life balance practices at city institutions. This is supported by Goldman Sachs, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Simmons and Simmons.