Flexible working – be more human

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By Tevin Tobun, CEO, GV Group (Gate Ventures) 

Working with catering and facilities teams to help feed school children is a pretty important job. 

We deliver meals for caterers to schools across the UK and our drivers know that thousands of children up and down the country depend on us for a proper hot meal in the middle of the school day. Many of the team are parents themselves and they understand the importance of getting our deliveries there on time. 

It is this understanding that really drives (excuse the pun) how we behave with our workforce. 

A large proportion of our drivers are female, most of the workforce is self-employed and a great many work part-time, including team leaders who manage groups of drivers. These people are invaluable to our existence, but they have family commitments, which make some roles difficult for them. 

We made a strategic decision a few years ago to deploy a flexible employment model. There are plenty of talented people out there but some are prevented from staying in the workforce due to family or other commitments, which is why we saw the need for flexible roles within our sector. 

But while having a flexible model may be great from a practical perspective, maintaining an engaged workforce can sometimes be a challenge for some operators. 

Our workforce model appeals to parents because we ensure that the hours work for them. More than that, we go out of our way to ensure that we engage with them in a meaningful way. Being both flexible and responsive is essential if you want happy, efficient, and productive workers. 

It starts at the interview stage. Some employers are so focussed on what they want that they treat it like a screening process that runs the risk of eliminating talent simply because the employment model is too rigid. 

In order to tap into the incredibly valuable resource represented by parents, as well as other people who want to work around their other commitments, that approach to recruitment needs to be turned on its head. Whether you do that comes down to whether you want to get the best out of people who want to be part of your workforce. 

Our interviews focus on what the candidate needs: their wants; their profile; their skill set; and their availability. We can then create a role based around those needs. We are convinced that more and more companies will adopt this approach because people’s expectations of employers are changing. Their awareness of the importance of a decent work/life balance is increasing. At the same time the make-up of the UK workforce is changing. 

It was not that long ago that people who had family commitments, such as bringing up kids or caring for sick or elderly relatives, simply didn’t work. They couldn’t. However, the UK is changing, thanks to a number of factors, including the rise of the gig economy, portfolio careers, job insecurity and the digitisation of business.

In the teeth of recession many people worked part time because they couldn’t get full time hours. It was effectively a distress purchase, not a positive choice. In early 2008 there were 705,000 people who worked part time but wanted full time hours. Now there are 881,000 people who are in ‘involuntary’ part-time work, according to the latest ONS figures, which represents almost one in ten of the UK’s 8.5m part-time workers. So for the vast majority, part time work is a positive choice and it is incumbent upon us as employers to make it a positive experience for them. 

Parents have so much to offer, particularly to a business like ours. They instinctively understand the nature of our work and because they have kids at school, they – more than anyone – appreciate the importance of what we do. 

Our focus on flexibility means they can take their children to school and go to work afterwards. They work during term times and get to enjoy school holidays with the kids without stressing about childcare. The national average cost of childcare costs is 41 per cent of a couple’s weekly earnings, rising to 43 per cent in London, according to recent research. 

Our business is all about agility and we needed this to be reflected in and embodied by our workforce. That’s why we changed our model and started recruiting more flexible workers to create an agile workforce. 

We target people looking for flexible working not just with what we advertise, but how and where. We make sure that the process of onboarding is comprehensive, but flexible. All our training is remote and housed on our online portal. We make sure that everyone is clear on the guidelines, safeguarding and health and safety. We keep in touch on a day-to-day level via company-provided mobiles and ensure there is local team leadership, but we also have newsletters, WhatsApp groups and other social media. The latter, in particular, is a great way to keep in touch with people in a light-touch, responsive kind of way.

There is more to it than that though. We need to keep ourselves up to date on our people’s circumstances, their ambitions and their hopes. Just recently we had a team leader whose children had grown up, which enabled her to work full time. We wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t been proactive in our communication – we may never had known if we waited for her to tell us because she might have got a full-time job somewhere else under the assumption a similar position was not an option with us. 

For me, a lot of it is about working backwards. Work out what people need now and what they might need in the future. Understand them. Then see what you can do for them.   

The idea of design-my-job is paying off for us. Technology plays a part in that. Our bespoke GPS system gives everyone a clear view of what’s happening where, when and by whom, while social and digital media enables a constant dialogue. 

You’ve got to have that kind of communication from the start. It’s important to be clear and open with prospective employees and keep in touch with your existing members of staff. See them as real people with real lives and treat them accordingly. Understand who you are looking for and why; what makes them unique; what they can offer your business and, in turn, what you can offer them. 

The biggest lesson we’ve learnt is to be human in your employment practices and your people will repay you handsomely.



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