Dependants’ day

It couldn’t have come at a better moment for BT. Only weeks after Sir Peter Bonfield resigned as chief executive, having presided over one of the most troubled periods in the company’s history, the accolade of “Employer of the Year” is a welcome spur to its recovery

In scooping the top prize at the Parents at Work awards last week, the company has cemented its pioneering reputation for flexible working. It is also clear evidence of a cultural change with few parallels among the UK’s big employers.

BT’s Work-Life Balance initiative is the latest incarnation of family-friendly policies it has developed, through trial and error, for more than two decades.

“We believe very strongly that if we’re going to have a successful business we have to select from the widest talent pool possible,” says Caroline Waters, director of employment policy. “Our ability to offer everything from working at home to adoptive leave means we can access truly diverse skills.”

Waters is a flexible worker herself. She currently does one day a week from home to care for her elderly parents.

Many of the company’s 4,000 flexible workers are line managers – the very group of people that has traditionally greeted the idea with reluctance and suspicion.

“When things get really busy it can be a leap of faith for managers to countenance family-friendly policies,” admits Waters, who says that there are rarely two people working to the same schedule in her department.

But, with the combination of a strong business case and close monitoring, the company is proving that flexible working is not merely a philanthropic gesture but a pragmatic strategy.

“If you measure the benefits and show the results, you will take people with you,” Waters says.

BT has made savings of £220 million on property alone, she points out. This has allowed the company to release money back into the core business.

With such a wide array of communication tools on offer, it is no longer always necessary for someone to sit at a particular desk in a certain building. E-mail, video-phones and teleconferencing have superseded desks, chairs and filing cabinets as the defining characteristics of the workplace. So BT has also saved money on the upkeep of buildings and been able to improve those not yet surplus to requirements.

For those who still haven’t bought into flexible working on principle, Waters is quick to recite the facts. “We have seen productivity going up, targets being met earlier and an increase in customer satisfaction,” she says. “Any manager will tell you those are prerequisites for profitability.”

She also reports that staff retention has improved, saving money on recruitment and training. Absenteeism is also down and the return rate after maternity leave is up from 89 per cent five years ago to 96 per cent. The implication, of course, is that new mothers are more willing to return to work knowing that their family commitments will be taken into account.

Communicating the opportunities that flexible working offers has been a key tool in achieving this culture change. Employees and managers alike can find out about BT’s Work-Life Balance programme through the intranet, which provides step-by-step guidance for anyone who wants to apply for some kind of flexible arrangement. Managers are also told what they should be looking for in a submission.

Case studies and the results of trials are posted on the intranet regularly and published in the company’s internal paper, BT Today.

Communicating the message to all staff, from the top down, is crucial to the success of the exercise, according to the company. A forum composed of senior executives has been established to explain strategies and provide role models. “The power of one manager to convince another of the benefits is worth more than a thousand bulletins,” Waters says.

Allyson Hill, BT’s social policy finance manager, says she has never worked harder than she does now. Until September, she had to make the journey to her London-based office from her home in Essex. But when her mother developed a terminal illness, Hill asked her manager if she could work from home so she could be nearer to her mother.

“I had a lot of support from my manager,” she says. “And the department wanted to encourage as many people as possible to work from home to save money on office space and travelling.”

Now based in her converted garage, Hill is free to decide how she makes up the 41 working hours of her week. “I am very self-disciplined and make sure I go out at lunch, or I’d spend all day in front of the PC,” she says. “I probably work longer hours because I don’t waste the time travelling and don’t get the chance to gossip with colleagues.”

BT supplies Hill with a computer and a telephone line, and gives her an allowance to buy office furniture. “Working from home has made a huge difference to my life,” she says. “I used to feel so guilty going to the hospital in working hours, but now I can structure my own time. I’m probably more productive than ever.”

With visits to her old office in London once a month and regular team meetings, Hill claims that she doesn’t feel isolated.

It is up to Dave Wilson, as manager of employment philosophy, to grant or deny such requests from his 14 employees. Wilson himself works one day a week in London and the rest of the time from an office in Dudley in the West Midlands, where he lives with his family.

“The people who work for me know they can be as flexible as they like, as long as they deliver,” he says. “It is about performance, not attendance.”

Wilson takes an informal approach and prefers staff to discuss their wishes with him rather than write a formal submission.

“The whole process is based on the psychological contract between employer and employee,” he says. “People need to feel they are being valued. It is natural that someone will want to go to their child’s sports day or look after sick parents.”

As part of its wider corporate social responsibility, BT wants to dispel the myth of the whip-cracking manager who keeps an eagle eye on his staff and, ultimately, damages morale.

“Employers have to recognise that many of society’s problems relate to families not having enough time to spend together,” Waters says. “We realised that the most productive employee is the most rounded. If we can help someone to have a happy, healthy life outside BT and a fulfilling job inside BT, then we can get truly fantastic results in return.”