Business sector: Clinical research, life sciences
Number of employees: 15,000+ employees operating in more than 80 countries


Key themes from the case study

  • Flexibility is a key differentiator when retaining talent. The interviewees provided two examples of senior-level employees who had been retained because of the flexibility the organisation offered.
    • The first example was that of a manager whose wife’s organisation was relocating from the UK to the Netherlands due to the impact of Brexit. He raised the question about whether he could maintain his role with PRA while relocating, and because of the strong culture of flexibility, he assumed that the answer would be yes. It was.
    • The second example is of a senior manager who experienced a personal challenge, which meant he had to move to Venezuela for eight weeks. He was still able to do his job from there and PRA were very flexible throughout.
  • Trust is key. Informal flexibility is based on trusting relationships with line managers.
  • The emphasis is on smart flexible working. Employees work in smart, flexible ways that fit in well with work, travel and personal commitments.
  • Flexible working is beneficial for multiple stakeholders. Flexibility is equally beneficial for the organisation, employees and, importantly, clients.
  • PRA is happy to experiment and pilot different ways of working. They have creative flexible practices in non-traditional parts of the business and role-modelling of flexible working at senior levels.
  • There is a focus on education and partnership with line managers. PRA provides conscious and unconscious bias training and general education for line managers to overcome any biases or barriers to flexible working. HR are also keen to genuinely partner with line managers rather than be directive. 

Overall lessons learned

  • Communication is key and it needs to be open and frequent to help people who work flexibly and remotely feel a sense of team.
  • It is essential that line managers trust their team to deliver. It is up to team members how they do their work – managers just want to see the result. The most important thing is the quality of work. The line manager of flexible workers explains that his team frequently request more work: ‘they would prefer that than to sit idle.’
  • Show examples of how well it works – this reassures others that flexible working is positive and can bring many benefits.
  • Experimentation is also important: ‘Just try and have a go – then you will have a better understanding of whether it could work. There will be surprises. Try different combinations – somewhere in the middle works really well.’ 

Next steps

  • Senior leadership sponsors and role models – more work will be done on gaining senior leadership sponsors of flexible working and flexible hiring and making them very visible throughout the organisation. PRA will also focus on using senior sponsors to reinforce the message that flexibility should be for all and encouraging more men to consider it.
  • There will also be a focus on providing examples from senior leaders that show that flexibility won’t negatively impact on people’s careers and show the individual making flexible working work with career progression.
  • Offer flexible working from the point of hire. This is already part of PRA’s recruitment strategy but will be given greater focus going forward in terms of communication and coaching of line managers.
  • Measurement and evaluation – greater work will be done on measuring the impact of flexible working through the planned employee survey and scorecard work.

Organisational context

Homeworking is the key type of flexibility Pharmaceutical Research Associates (PRA) offers because of the fit with the business and the services it provides to clients. Typically employees will work two or three days in their clients’ office or their own main office and then complete the rest of the week working from home. Many employees travel for work internationally, so homeworking is a good option to avoid additional commutes and ensure better work–life balance in between travel. Compressed working is also popular, with a number of employees working a 32-hour week over four days. 

The organisation offers both informal and formal approaches to flexibility. Informal approaches to flexibility are often based on tacit agreements with line managers. The relationship is based on trust and line managers are encouraged to talk about flexibility with their teams. They are also coached to ensure that their team members are not overworking or overtired due to the large amount of travel undertaken by many employees. Employees are therefore encouraged to take time off in lieu. Flexible working in a formal capacity is also open to all employees in the organisation. 

PRA believes flexible working is key to attraction and retention and their informal flexible working culture acts as a selling point. It is seen as a crucial part of the overall benefits package and a way of differentiating themselves in a highly competitive industry. Flexibility has also helped to create a more diverse organisation and is a way of attracting and retaining people with excellent skills. The culture of the organisation is generally one of flexibility, whereby output is measured ‘…not by the time spent sitting in a chair but the quality of your work’.

Flexible working in non-traditional and/or senior roles

  • Non-traditional roles: PRA offers flexibility in their customer services team, which needs to provide 24/7 support to clients. Customer service employees can choose to be part of the flexible working programme and pick the specific shifts that work for them, such as a mixture of early and late shifts. Some customer service staff are also enabled to work from home, through the use of online portals that provide access to internal and customer systems so that they are able to respond to customer needs. This also has benefits for the organisation; for example, some of the customer services team are students finishing their university studies, and accommodating them with flexibility often encourages them to work for the organisation in the future.

    The more traditional functions of HR and finance offer flexibility but also have more of a requirement to have a presence in the office. The HR director provides laptops for all her staff, including administrators, to ensure that they are able to have flexibility. This acts as a symbolic gesture to ensure that all have equal access to flexibility, regardless of role. Employees throughout the business can also loan a laptop if they don’t have one. 
  • Senior roles: The senior management team role-models flexibility and enables flexibility over start and finish times. For example, one member manages a global team and is formally office-based. They often have to take late calls in the evening from the US, so leave the office early to collect their children and get them settled before taking the calls in the evening. The HR director maintains that the tone is set from the top of the organisation: ‘Do what you have to do …the priorities are your family. Our product is our people – the brains, skills and experience of our employees – if we don’t look after them and treat them as people, then we won’t have a business to run.’

Gaining senior and line manager buy-in

  • Training and education around flexible working: The HR director talked about the importance of conscious and unconscious bias training that has already been provided to senior managers and is currently being cascaded down to line managers and employees. This is combined with coaching and education around the benefits of creating a flexible culture. As the HR director maintains: ‘As HR we want to work in partnership with the managers – we do not want to police. We don’t like to operate in that way and they are more likely to listen to us. However, as with anything – there is a mixture of supporters and detractors.’ 
  • Building the case: A line manager of a flexible worker thinks it is important to ‘provide evidence, demonstrate that quality can be maintained, be open and honest, and make the case internally’.
  • Development and retention: A line manager also commented on the importance of trust between a manager and flexible worker and how this supports development and retention: ‘If you don’t trust people, then they won’t grow and you will eventually lose them.’ 

Facilitators to implementing flexible working 

  • Technology: Technology facilitates the ability to work anywhere and helps to support people to effectively combine office and homeworking. It allows people to connect in many different forms and the organisation makes use of some helpful online conferencing and meeting tools. However, PRA works in the service provision industry, so face-to-face still has a place in building relationships with clients, but interviewees acknowledged that you can build a relationship face-to-face and then follow things up in a virtual way. 
  • Education from day one: Another key facilitator is providing education up front. The organisation is keen to offer flexibility from day one, and the HR director is part of the CIPD and Timewise’s Flexible Hiring Champions project. There are a number of senior leaders sponsoring flexible hiring internally within PRA and providing positive examples of how it can work. They are developing testimonies from people who have been hired on a flexible basis to share with the rest of the business. The HR director admits that there is more work to do on this and the emphasis is on continuous education: ‘Keep on talking and showing examples – work together – sell the benefits and the positive impacts.’
  • Closing the gender pay gap: A key priority for the organisation is around closing the gender pay gap, which also places a strong emphasis on flexible working and the business imperative of building a flexible culture for all. 

Benefits of implementing flexible working (including any data/evidence collected)

Flexible worker perspective

  • Productivity and work–life balance: Having a great IT infrastructure and tools such as Skype, Jabba and Webex enables employees to have the same productivity working from home as they would in the office and balance this with their life responsibilities. It also means that when they come to the office, they can be very focused on meeting with people and establishing relationships. 

Line manager perspective

  • Reassures team members that you trust them: As a manager, ‘being open to it also reassures your team members that you trust them’.
  • Better organisation of workload: Employees are more organised and in control of their work and can work with people all over the world.

HR perspective

  • Diversity and inclusion, belonging and wellbeing: The benefits from an organisational perspective include greater diversity and inclusion, creating a sense of belonging, wellbeing, and that the organisation considers employees’ personal requirements and cares about them.

Challenges/barriers to implementing flexible working

Flexible worker perspective

  • Technology difficulties and feeling isolated: Some of the barriers from an individual flexible worker perspective include: small technological glitches, and challenges for people that like to be surrounded by colleagues and feel isolated while working from home. 
  • Building relationships with colleagues: There is also a challenge associated with the lack of office interaction, which means people can miss out on some of the informal, unsolicited connections.

Line manager perspective

  • Technology difficulties and language barriers: Similarly, line managers of flexible workers point to technological challenges, which are not frequent, but are challenging on occasion, and language barriers, which are sometimes more difficult via the phone.
  • The need for face-to-face time initially: Line managers also emphasise the need for a certain amount of face-to-face time to establish relationships up front. 

HR perspective

  • Overcoming conscious and unconscious perceptions about flexible working: From an HR perspective, one challenge is overcoming the perception that working from home means slacking.

    There can also be both conscious and unconscious barriers that people hold in relation to flexible working, and the organisation’s training in this area is helping to identify and overcome these biases. 
  • Flexibility associated with length of service: Another potential barrier is that managers often find it easier to accommodate a flexible working request if employees have been with the organisation longer. In some ways this is understandable because trust has already been built up. However, a new recruit might have been working flexibly successfully for the previous ten years in another organisation, and by not offering this on the point of hire, the organisation would be missing out on this talent.

Overcoming the barriers and challenges

Line manager perspective

  • Isolation challenges can be overcome to some extent by managers building rapport on team calls and interactions: ‘We tend to talk about non-work-related activities for the first 20 minutes of team calls – to build that rapport.’

HR perspective

  • Overcoming conscious and unconscious negative perceptions of flexible working requires a programme of continuous education for line managers around what it really means to be flexible. 
  • More work needs to be done around championing flexible working from day one and building a culture of trust. The HR director believes that there is always a trial element: have a go – have a conversation and challenge things. This can bring benefit to not just the individual, but also the manager, the team and the whole organisation.’

How to measure and evaluate the impact of flexible working

  • Performance reviews: Performance reviews within PRA have changed and are now a continuous evaluation – called performance pathways. They provide flexible tools that people can use to track their own progress and outputs from their work projects. This can also provide a good measure and evaluation of the impact of flexible working. 
  • Employee survey: PRA are looking to launch a new employee survey, which will include questions to track the impact of flexible working. Customers of the organisation are also interested in an informal survey which would include a flexible working aspect. They are also starting to collect data via a survey for new hires and feedback to leaders in a scorecard. They also collect lots of informal feedback, which points to the value placed on flexible working and the fact that it is seen as a key attractor. 

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