Tracey Walters, head of diversity at Brent Council, explains how employees are able to work flexibly to suit their needs at the London council that was voted as excellent by the government.
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When it comes to forward thinking and enterprising councils, Brent has made a name for itself. And if you are looking for individuals who are seen at the leading edge of work-life balance, then look no further than Tracy Walters, head of diversity at Brent.
Local government has a history of offering a level of flexible working that many in the private sector can only dream about. In fact it can be so normal in the public sector, that many staff have long forgotten that it is a benefit. But Brent wanted to take flexible working into another league and tie flexible working practices to core business objectives such as recruitment and retention, becoming an employer of choice, reducing sickness absence and increasing the proportion of women in senior management.
Walters, who had been working in the HR department, was charged with setting up Brent’s Diversity Unit a year ago. But while conducting the technical interviews to appoint a unit chief, and despite having a general HR background, she thought “I can do this job”. Like a lot of women, she was nervous about such a high profile post but the variety in the role won her over.
As Walters points out, from a diversity standpoint, this is the only council workforce where, like its population, the vast majority of people are from black, ethnic minorities or Irish communities. In addition, the majority (61%) of staff are women. Both the gender and racial make-up stems from the fact that councils tend to be local employers and that women, largely, prefer to work locally, often through the necessity of caring responsibilities. Being seen as an employer of choice among its traditional labour pool is important.
It is also important that Brent Council attracts and retains the best recruits, throughout the organisation, at all levels. “Much of the quality of an organisation rests on those leading it,” she says. Striving to get talent at the top is also helping the Council to reach for its ambitious objective of being rated ‘excellent’ in the government’s Comprehensive Performance Assessment by 2006. Currently it is rated ‘fair’, having missed out on a ‘good’ rating by just one point this year. Although these assessments and ratings may mean little to those outside of local government, they can be an important draw for recruits.
“People want to work for a council which is successful and delivers good services, not a council which is a poor performer,” explains Walters. Back in July 2002, the Council was awarded a 7,500 grant by the Department for Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Work-life Balance Challenge Fund to pay for a consultant. From within the HR department Walters worked with the consultant to roll out the project.
Originally they piloted it in Brent’s social services department, where sickness absence was high and 75% of staff are women. The results of the project were a huge success. “In March 2003 we rolled it out across the rest of the Council. We were also awarded more DTI funding which Brent then matched,” says Walters.
The right to work flexibly is now open to all staff, regardless of grade, but it must fit in with the needs of the service. A lot of the requests are dealt with informally, and legislative rights (such as the right for parents with disabled children under the age of 18 to request up to eighteen weeks unpaid leave) are extended to all employees. Staff can also ask to work flexibly for a short period of time, if they have a short-term need.
The upshot is that the Council has disabled staff who choose to avoid travelling during rush hour, Jewish staff who leave early on a Friday, Catholic staff who come into work later because they go to morning Mass, and Muslim staff who make use of a greater degree of flexibility during Ramadan. Plus a myriad of other combinations, for a wide variety of reasons. Perhaps the most dramatic impact has been on the proportion of women being promoted to senior levels. Back in 2002, 30% of senior management posts were held by women.
Figures published this August in its Annual Monitoring Report show this has shot up by 50% – now 45% of senior roles are held by women. Walters highlights the work done in one area, Environmental Services, that has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of women managers in this male-dominated department. “Now men are aware that women want promotion.
Because what the women were saying is: ‘we don’t go for jobs because we don’t think the men want to promote us’. And men were saying: ‘If you don’t tell us you want promotion, how do we know it?’. All it needed was someone to go in there and get both sides talking to each other.” She hopes that publishing these results will encourage people to apply for posts at Brent. “I hope they see that and think, hey, Brent promotes women, that is somewhere I want to work.”
For all they have achieved, she is still aware of the tasks ahead, for instance, although the number of senior managers from black and ethnic minority groups is way above the 10% London average, its 17% figure falls far short of its workforce demographic of 55%. And most of the 7% of staff who are disabled, are in junior roles. Walter’s next key area of concern is to get women who are in junior roles into management. “There are an awful lot of women at the bottom of the management ladder who are having a really hard time during their twenties and thirties. They are having kids and they are almost dropping into a career black hole. Women do make choices that sometimes limit their careers. A lot of those women don’t mind and that is fine if you don’t mind. But what if you do?”
The work of the Diversity Unit has made Brent one of the UK’s most advanced employers. Walters says that this success is largely down to an extensive education and communication strategy. “We spoke to each senior management team in turn, and what we said to them is: ‘If you don’t like what we are doing then you need to tell us, please don’t criticise the project outside to your staff.”
In 2003, every member of staff received a work-life balance handbook attached to their payslip. This increased its visibility. Walters and her team have worked hard to keep it on the agenda, through Brent Council’s staff magazine, briefings, letters and memos. “I want to emphasise how much time a project like this takes, working with people face-to-face. I think the success of the project was that we knew what we wanted to do and we communicated it really well. I think sometimes people make the mistake in organisations of having a conversation about ‘we’re going to try and achieve this target’ and then failing to communicate it with anybody else,” says Walters. “I made sure I kept talking to people until I was blue in the face, or until they saw me coming and they thought ‘Oh God, not her again’, but they got the message.
“I knew I had it cracked when I went to a meeting chaired by the leader of the Council and at half-past-five she announced she was leaving to go and collect her grandson from the playground. That meant that if she could get up and walk out of a meeting at half-past-five other people can as well. That sends out a very clear message about the importance of families and about the commitments of our staff outside work.”
While Tracy Walters was studying at the University of York she worked a couple of nights a week as a youth worker in order to earn extra money. On graduating with a masters degree she went into the voluntary sector. Her next moves included delivering training at a college of further education, which then led her to work for a race equality council. From there she moved onto a local council heading up its one-stop shop, before being offered a secondment to the chief executive’s office at Hillingdon Council working on equalities. After a year, there was a departmental reorganisation and “they tagged HR onto my equalities role and offered me the job, and I said yes.” This is where she got four years grounding in HR. After five years at Hillingdon she took a promotion to join Brent Council. She has been at Brent for three years, for the first two years in a senior HR role, and about a year ago Walters became the boss of the Diversity Unit. “I am not a great career planner, none of this has been planned. I do things because I enjoy them, and partly because I feel proprietorial. I think, someone else might not do it as well as I will. I had better do it myself.” As she points out, she has her own work-life balance challenges to deal with. “I am a senior manager and a lone parent (I have a six-year-old son) so my life is rather hectic, but I hope that I have achieved a proper balance and that Brent and my son both get the best of me.”
Janet Kear, service development officer for the transportation unit (a part of environmental services) has experienced the difference Brent’s flexible working policy has made to her working life.Working flexibly is not completely new to Kear; she job-shared for a time after the birth of her second child in 1996. After the birth of her third child in 2000, she once again elected to job share. “My agreed working pattern with my line manager was Monday, Tuesday and half-a-day on Wednesday. But he was always happy for me to switch days around, hours around, and do a bit of extra,” explains Kear. However, the subsequent introduction of the new flexible working policy in 2003 meant that this type of working pattern has become accepted practice. “So whereas before people would get a little frustrated that ‘Oh, Janet is only in for the first half of the week, and its really awkward trying to arrange meetings with her’, there are lots of people who do different patterns now. And because it is open to everybody, there is not the stigma of ‘You only got [the job] because you are a women coming back off maternity leave’. “It has certainly given my manager and other managers the confidence to be flexible, because it is written down that they can be,” she adds.
Brent Council at a glance
The London Borough of Brent was created out of the reorganisation of London’s government in 1965, yet its component parts, with only a few exceptions, are derived from hamlets which began as self-supporting communities in forest clearings, some of which date back over 1,000 years. Situated in north west London, the Council’s wards include Harlesden, Kilburn, Willesden and Wembley, the latter being where its town hall is situated, in the shadow of the new Wembley Stadium. Around 5,500 staff work at the council. It serves 264,000 residents, 55% of whom are from black or ethnic minority groups and a further 7% are Irish. It is one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK – five of Brent’s wards are among the top 10% most deprived in the UK and over 50% of households receive an income below the London average. Like other councils it is responsible for services as diverse as looking after education, highways, social services, youth groups and conducting marriages.
- Pension scheme: Defined benefit (final salary) scheme. Open to all, 6% employer contribution, 5% employee contribution. Staff get two-thirds of salary on retirement.
- Occupational health: One-to-one counselling when needed, especially important for front-line staff who can be abused by the public. Range of other services from holiday jabs, and free annual eye tests, to long-term sickness management (outsourced to Westminster Healthcare).
- Work-life balance: Maternity/paternity benefits and leave, leave for adoption above statutory minimum. Flexible working: flexitime (staff work a four-and-a-half day week or a nine-day fortnight), compressed hours, term time-only working, part-time and job share roles. Special leave for care arrangements and compassionate leave following bereavement. Free advice on childcare options and providers, with advice on tax credits.
- Holidays: Varies, from 25 to 32 days on average. Additional days after five years and 10 years of service.
- Loans: Interest free loans on travel cards. Low interest loans for car purchase. Welfare loans to staff in financial need.
- Mortgages: Some staff qualify for the key worker housing scheme.