To tackle the skills shortage, many housebuilders and others in the new homes sector are trying their best to make a career in the industry more appealing, and one of the ways that they are bringing us up-to-date on the working culture is through the offer of flexible hours.
The problem of finding enough of the right people to fill the available roles is the result of several factors. From gender equality and diversity of background to the unfortunate reputation that housebuilding – particularly the culture of the building site – has rather unfairly retained, there are many big issues to address. An increasing number of companies are seeing the flexible working week as an attraction to many potential team members, particularly those who left the industry and would be very valued coming back into it.
We’ve spoken to some senior housebuilding industry figures to get their thoughts on flexible hours, what they’ve seen of it to date and what others should think about if considering the introduction of it for their own teams.
These are the questions we posed:
- Has your organisation already introduced flexible hours and if not, is it planning to introduce it in the future?
- What benefits do you see flexible working bringing to employees and employers?
- Should it only apply to particular staff and if so, who might be the ones to benefit the most?
- Are there potential difficulties in applying it and do the pros outweigh the cons?
Mette Blackmore, group HR director for Acorn Property Group
At Acorn Property Group we have always prided ourselves on the flexible working policies we adopted many years ago. It originally started when new mums returned to work after maternity leave and wanted to or needed to alter their hours to fit in childcare arrangements and travel. Over the years many more team members, both male and female, have chosen to work flexible hours for various personal reasons and Acorn is always happy to support this where appropriate. Working patterns vary enormously, we have team members in the office from around 6.30am until 7.00pm, some choose to start early and finish early and others prefer to start later and finish later – our official opening hours are 8.30am to 5.00pm.
I think flexible working suits different needs. Some people are naturally morning people and some are not! It’s great to be able to offer the flexibility and I think very much appreciated by all of our team members. They get to come in and work when they can be most productive and without worrying about how they are going to fit in not only childcare but any other interests they have outside of work and we know we get the best from people when they have that flexibility and the perfect work/life balance.
Generally we would not say no to anyone requesting to work flexible hours but there are certain areas of the business that we have to make sure are covered during our official opening hours, such as reception and IT support.
Our intranet shows the hours everyone work so it makes it very easy to check if someone is in or not. Not only do we have flexible hours we also have a lot of team members who only work certain days so it is quite important that there is a central and easy to get to point to check when your colleagues are in the office. I’m a firm believer that our business thrives on a happy workforce and flexible working hours is one of the benefits we sometimes forget to mention when looking at all our benefits together but it’s probably the one that is most appreciated and a contributing factor to our high staff retention. It is likely that it would be difficult for smaller organisations to comply if legislation was introduced to make it compulsory, if they only have one person in a specific role then they may struggle to find cover for that person during the time they’re not in the office. For Acorn it really works and the pros by far outweigh the cons but it wouldn’t necessarily work for everyone.
Malcolm O’Brien, executive director of people & IT at Swan Housing
I think that even talking about flexible hours or flexitime is a bit old hat. The idea of logging the hours you’ve attended or just doing them in a flexible way is looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope. We need to be focusing on outputs not inputs. Consider what your people are there to achieve for the business, not how often are they there doing it.
Businesses that are built around an old concept of ‘going to work’, exacerbated by a culture of long hours, presentisms and telling everyone you’re “sooo busy”, now sound more like the 1980s concept of the work place rather than 2018 and beyond.
At Swan & NU living we recognise that if we wish to be innovative and attract and retain our best people, we need to move away from that approach and we are putting in place the building blocks to stimulate and support this change. Our new approaches to technology deployment (hardware and software), as well as coaching for managers to adapt their leadership style, will all help us make that shift. In addition, we are adapting our work spaces to focus more on providing the right space for the activity taking place. That’s seen us create spaces for concentration, collaboration, confidential chats and networking.
Whilst the benefits of greater work/life balance for all are well documented, the expectations of our employees of the future are also changing. Millennials aren’t constrained by the legacy of old office practices and see themselves as more flexible in how they work and their approach problem solving.
In addition, until we break the imbalance in childcare ‘expectations’, a more flexible approach to measuring contribution will be a focus for women returners to help reduce inequality and close the gender pay gap.
Legislation often has unintended consequences and whilst the market hasn’t always been quick to respond or self-regulate, the best and most enlightened employers will adopt this more agile way of working to compete for the best candidates and use it to promote their brand to customers and candidates alike.
It’s worth considering that the next time you speak to an agency or place a job advert and say “Monday to Friday 9.00-5.30, based here” you might be instantly turning off a large group of potential candidates and saying something very powerful about your organisational culture.
Janet Arthur, head of HR at Network Homes
Network Homes offers flexible and home working to all our employees. We recognise people have responsibilities, interests and aspirations outside of work which may lead them to seek a greater work-life balance. We see our employees as individuals with unique needs and recognise them as our top priority; flexible working is a fair way to accommodate the needs and challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.
At Network Homes we operate different models of flexible working – both paid and unpaid – to provide our employees with the best options for managing their work-life balance. Benefits have included increased employee motivation, increased commitment and reduced stress and absenteeism. Because we offer paid time off for dependency care, emergency leave and compassionate leave, employees feel adequately supported without the need to call in sick. In essence, flexible working promotes a happier, healthier workforce resulting in improved performance and productivity as well as higher customer satisfaction.
Flexible working is available to all staff. However, it is important decisions take account of all available options and are tailored to the different responsibilities and demands of particular job roles. While we seek to balance employee requests alongside business needs, flexible working is a two-way process which requires flexibility on both sides.
Our executive leadership team promotes a culture of flexibility throughout the organisation but also expects us to deliver a first class service to all our customers.
As with any policies, there may be potential difficulties, although the benefits to staff and the organisation outweigh these. Decisions must be carefully considered to ensure resources available can support service delivery. However, offering flexible working, alongside other employee benefits, is a big incentive to attracting and recruiting the best talent. It gives the message of an organisation that values and supports its workforce.
Sandra Brownlie, operations director at The Malins Group
I joined The Malins Group in 2010, after spending seven years working for an IT consultancy, and look after all the internal operations for the company. I oversee the workflow of our in-house team, including the portfolio manager, design consultant, admin staff and accounts department, whilst also coordinating and managing certain projects.
While flexible working is now becoming more the norm, nine years ago it was quire radical and ahead of its time. Our managing director Lauren Atkins really spearheaded it at the time – being a new mum herself, she knew the importance of being flexible for families, but also extended this to trainees and apprenticeships too. When Lauren took over and the office moved to Weybridge, the entire team was part-time.
I first started with Malins when my two daughters were in primary school, so I was very much looking for something part-time and relatively flexible, so I could be around as much as possible for them whilst still furthering my career. My initial hours were 9.30am to 2.30pm, Monday to Friday, but I have always had a great working relationship with Lauren, and she has been very supportive when family situations have changed these hours. Should doctor or dentist appointments crop up, I was able to work from home for the morning, or if I needed to leave by a certain time I could always come into the office earlier.
As my children grew, I was able to increase my hours to the 9.00am to 4.00pm I do today – now at 13 and 15, the girls need me at home less, which means I can focus more on my work! Ironically, my hours vary more nowadays, which tends to be based on the different projects we’re working on. I might be needed until 6.00pm one evening, and again at 8.00am the next day, or at other times I can finish slightly earlier or come in later. There may be the rare occasion I may be required out of hours, responding to emergencies. It’s very much a balance, and the hours do even out over the month!
The office ethos is very much to make the most out of the hours you’re working, and as a small, dedicated team, it’s definitely something we maintain well. We do have some full-time staff whose hours are 9.00am to 6.00pm, but should they need or want flexibility then the option is very much there – our design consultant works 4.5 days as that’s what works best for her in terms of work-life balance!
Flexible working definitely ties in with the company’s approach to nurturing and training staff (some staff have been with us since they left school!). We try to get the best out of our staff and support them as individuals, and have so far found being so flexible has helped with staff retention, through creating a really positive work environment.
Jade Turnstill, digital marketing & communications executive for Share to Buy
For us at Share to Buy, true flexibility comes in the form of agile working. Gone are the days of staff being chained to their desks from nine to five: we pride ourselves on being able to adapt and work from anywhere – be it at a café or on a train, in between meetings, or from our own homes. As an online portal, agility is an essential part of our business model. Our systems allow us to communicate with customers, clients and industry colleagues at any time and on the go.
Nonetheless, to cross pollinate ideas and keep in contact as a team, being able to reconvene in our Central London offices on a regular basis is invaluable. This is especially helpful when we have new projects in the pipeline or big events coming up!
In terms of hours, we largely mirror the working hours of our clients (who include some of the UK’s largest housebuilders and housing associations) – however, we are pleased to see that there has undoubtedly been a shift in working attitudes in recent years across the sector. Most of us come from a housing sector background (personally, I joined from L&Q), and there has been a noticeable shift in working hours within the sector which is something we may be able to replicate in the not-too-distant future.
To me, the benefits of a flexible attitude to work are endless! We millennials are proud to be leading the ‘gig’ economy, and the spirit of a freelancer culture. Whether in full time employment working for a big corporation, or building a start-up from our bedrooms, we are a generation who thrive on flexibility and making our own rules.
For the employee, choosing to work from home, having all of our creature comforts around us and missing out on the crush of the London commute undoubtedly promotes well-being and reduces stress! For the employer, having a dedicated team of happy employees definitely promotes staff retention and productivity.
There is no doubt that those with families benefit hugely from flexible working hours – however, there is no reason it shouldn’t apply to all.
Going out and meeting people is an essential part of working at Share to Buy, particularly for myself as a marketer. Spit-balling new ideas with clients and our partner agencies or meeting our registrants at the London Home Show, our bi-annual event for first-time buyers, promotes creativity and inspires us to help first-time buyers onto the property ladder. If we were any less agile, we just wouldn’t be able to get out there and meet as many people as we do.
For us, the pros definitely outweigh the cons, and flexible working has become an essential part of life at Share to Buy. I’m not sure whether legislation is the right way forward – I would certainly champion flexible hours but I’m not sure if it would suit everyone. It all depends on the individual; some people need a set routine and may not manage their workload as effectively with more irregular hours, while others would thrive working to their own schedule.
There’s also clearly an element of trust required with a flexible approach to working. Here at Share to Buy, we are a relatively small team, so accountability is key, and one person not pulling their weight would be pretty obvious! However, we are really lucky to have a team who are so passionate about what we do – we all live and breathe the first time buyer market, so this has never been an issue for us!
Rachel Credidio, group people and transformation director at Aster Group
For many, maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be difficult when structured around the traditional nine-to-five, office-based routine. Having the option to work from home, under the hours that suit them, can help employees meet both their work and personal commitments. And with the rise in a digital workplace culture, it’s become much easier for employers to meet this need.
We believe that work is something you do, not somewhere you go, and we’ve introduced flexible working for our employees where possible. This goes beyond working hours – we’ve also introduced a ‘work anywhere’ culture for those with desk-based jobs. This agile approach benefits those with children or carer commitments and helps our colleagues to balance their work and family life. It also means reduced downtime spent commuting. Of course, the nature of our business means that agile working isn’t right for every role – for example, those in our repairs or housing teams will always need to be based near our residents. But where possible, we aim to offer our people a choice in how they work.
Allowing more employees to work where and when they choose has also boosted our talent pool. We can attract people into the business based on their skills and knowledge, rather than how close they live to our offices. This opens up roles to a much wider demographic, bringing in those from outside the South West who may have otherwise only looked to work in their local area.
Our shift in approach has been supported by a significant investment into our IT infrastructure and we’ve worked hard to integrate new technology across the board. Ultimately, though, this has more than repaid itself.
Agile working is now the norm rather than the exception at Aster. Trust plays a key part in our approach and the backing of our senior management for a more open, engaged culture has been key to its success. For example, our group chief executive gave up his office, which was a real statement of intent to the rest of the business about the importance of agile working. Without this commitment from the top, it can be difficult for cultural shifts to truly take hold in the workplace.
Our main goal is to have a diverse, balanced workforce. Our agile working policy has gone a long way to achieving this.
David Goldberg, CEO at Pod Management
We have already embraced flexible working hours for all employees – it’s part of our culture and has helped us attract the best talent from the industry. Property Management is not a 9-5 job, so it seemed obvious to embrace a system that benefits our customers, benefits our employees and in turn helps our business!
It’s all about creating a culture where staff want to work for you. The benefits to the employee are obvious, they have control over their work life balance, it builds trust and allows flexibility. For the employer it helps us attract talent and perhaps even more importantly, retain valued staff. And being pretty brutal about it, that in turn helps reduce our recruitment costs, leads to happier clients and ultimately a more profitable company.
Should it apply to particular staff? No. But the reality is it is a privilege some employees have to earn given that we are relying on trust. I don’t believe in discriminating flexible working to those only with care needs as everyone’s priorities are different.
For me it’s all about the degree of flexibility required and perhaps the greater the need, the more senior the individual should be, but I also see this is a potential reward for performance. Flexible working hours can be used as a good motivator for junior staff who might want more flexibility than their current role dictates.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it should only be based on seniority as each case should be regarded on its own merits.
Yes, of course there is always a risk in applying a system such as this. For example, you have to be sure that work targets will be achieved and if that flexibility extends to working from home there are workplace factors to be considered including IT ones. For me though, the pros far outweigh the cons. Happy staff = happy workplace = happy clients = happy returns!