Business sector: Education
Number of employees: 1,758

 

Key themes from the case study

  • Communication is critical for getting buy-in for flexible working, implementing flexible working arrangements successfully, and ensuring smooth ongoing sharing of responsibilities between those working flexibly.
  • Trust and collaborative attitudes (give and take) between the flexible worker and their line manager are essential for flexible working to work.
  • Creating an open organisational culture supports flexible working.
  • School environments have particular advantages for flexible working (for example term-time working is straightforward) and particular disadvantages (for example needing to split classes and form groups to accommodate non-full-time arrangements).
  • The recruitment crisis in education has prompted more openness to flexible working as a way to recruit and retain good people.
  • Flexible working is seen as a way of supporting people’s wellbeing and helping them feel valued.
  • Ad hoc flexibility is as important as contractual flexibility – for example, being able to take time out for ad hoc things like children’s assemblies, or for other personal interests.

Overall lessons learned

  • It is valuable to use evidence and information from external sources:
    • Evidence from elsewhere that shows why flexible working is important.
    • Sector examples of where it has worked.
    • Statistics about the number of people leaving the profession and why they have left. 
  • To work flexibly, people have to learn to manage their own time and juggle 
    responsibilities.
  • Flexible working is vital to get the best out of people by meeting their needs: ‘it is key that staff know that if there is something they need, they can ask… ultimately this is all about valuing people as people and creating a culture that will work for staff and students.’
  • Culture change takes time: The benefits need to be promoted by head teachers who have made it work by talking to other head teachers.

Organisational context 

GLF Schools is a trust comprising 30 primary and secondary schools (academies) across five local authorities. It offers a range of types of flexible working: term-time working is the obvious and easiest form to implement in educational settings, while part-time working, job-shares, and staggered hours (starting late or finishing early) are also common at GLF Schools. It also offers staff ad hoc flexibility to take time off for one-off events. ‘Our policies explicitly say that staff are entitled to one day per year for a significant personal reason; in practice, we are keen to develop a culture where we are not tallying those things.’ 

In addition, the organisation is open to staff having flexibility to do different roles as well as teaching. An internal example of this is that some employees have a split role within the trust, so part of their role is being a teacher and the other part is, for example, leading on a particular subject across the trust. There are also examples where an individual does a role outside the trust for part of their time: for example, a man who does consulting work on one day a week and works for GLF Schools four days per week.

Homeworking has traditionally been offered to non-teaching staff, but the organisation has started to explore opportunities for teachers to work remotely some of the time to do certain tasks such as planning, marking, leadership time, and so on. Associate staff members have options for working from home and flexitime if appropriate to their role.

Historically, GLF Schools tended to introduce flexible working when an employee came back from maternity leave, but they are also now recruiting people into flexible working roles. More candidates are asking for flexible working, and recruitment difficulties in education are forcing people to be more creative about making flexible working work. Their job adverts used not to say that they offered flexible working, but now it is standard to include mention of flexible working in adverts. The next stage is to think about how jobs could be designed flexibly from the point of advert so that flexibility is clear at the point of hire, ‘not just saying “we’re open to flexibility”, but actually thinking about how to build in flexibility, so we’re not just putting out an advert for exactly the job the previous person was doing, but thinking through with the manager how it could be changed and made more flexible.’

Flexible working has been happening at GLF for a long time – though not necessarily labelled as flexible working – but this has increased over the last year or so. Now, it is an organisation-wide agenda and is about being an employer of choice: ‘we want people to come and work for us and to stay here; if the evidence is that flexible working is what people are looking for, then that is what we must offer to get the best people.’ Flexible working has also been linked to the wellbeing agenda, recognising that teaching and working in education can be stressful and challenging, so if flexible working supports people’s wellbeing, that is another reason to do it.

The aim is that flexible working should be for everyone – men/women, parents/not, old/young – not just about mums with young children, but anyone who wants some kind of flexibility. The organisation is open to looking at any role to see how it could be made flexible, and to exploring all forms of flexible working, not just part-time or term-time working. In some cases, flexible working (for example staggered working or ad hoc flexibility) is happening and working well without formal processes, but is not thought of as flexible working, so the organisation wants to make clear that flexible working is about all these forms of flexibility. 

Flexible working in non-traditional and/or senior roles

Non-traditional roles

  • Flexible working in teaching roles and teaching assistants. 

Senior roles

  • Primary school has successfully implemented a job-share head teacher.
  • Deputy head teachers and assistant head teachers are part-time. ‘Assistant head teacher was the last part of the school where I held onto the notion that flexible working couldn’t work… now I believe there is no area of the school where it wouldn’t work.’
  • Despite some resistance to implementing flexible working in middle leadership positions, a recent request from a head of department wanting to return from maternity leave on three days a week has been agreed on a trial basis and there is a job-share head of maths.
  • A senior member of staff has reduced his hours/days at the end of his career, to remain in the leadership team and to continue working for longer.
  • Centrally based senior leaders have the opportunity to work a variety of flexible patterns, including homeworking, staggered and compressed hours. 

Gaining senior and line manager buy-in

  • Be clear of the benefits and address concerns: Talking about the imperative to recruit and retain good staff and how being as public as possible about flexible working helps with that. Flexible working can also help contain budgets as it allows schools to employ the capacity they need and not over-recruit within functions. Writing timetables is always about compromise, so flexible working means having to split responsibility for classes, but the plus side is retaining staff, having a full complement of staff and getting good staff: ‘recognise that having good-quality teachers is a far greater priority than having a perfect timetable because it won’t be perfect if you don’t have the staff!’ 
  • Make it straightforward: Talk to heads about flexible working to get them thinking about how to implement flexible working and clarify where flexible working (for example staggered hours) has already been implemented but just hasn’t been seen as such. ‘So, we’re showing them that it’s not just about people working part-time… it is a breakthrough to get senior people thinking more in that way, realising they are already doing it and could make it work in other ways.’ 
  • Draw on external data: Give statistics to show the benefits of flexible working and the broader national perspective, for example show the percentage of people that want flexibility. Also, show that it is important for everyone, not just mums returning from maternity leave.
  • Give examples: ‘If you can show examples of where it has worked really well, that helps people be more open to it, though no one wants to be the guinea pig, so it can be a bit “chicken and egg”.’

    There are examples of split roles where an individual does two part-time roles both within the trust, which shows that their school role can be done part-time. The fact that the HR team all work flexibly has helped in the conversations with head teachers as they can give personal examples.

Facilitators to implementing flexible working 

Nature of the role

  • Term-time working works well for schools because of the fit with the school year; it is welcomed by many staff members who are parents, and is straightforward to implement in educational settings.
  • Some roles are easier to make flexible than others. Roles where people are out and about in different places lead naturally to flexible and homeworking. For example, the HR team, education partner and other central functions are all out at schools much of the time, therefore homeworking and flexing hours is a natural thing to do.

Context and timing

  • Flexible working works best when there is plenty of warning, so arrangements can be put in place early: it is hard to arrange things if the request is only put in just before the person comes back from maternity leave (or late in the recruitment process).
  • Being a large school can make it easier because the bigger the timetable is, the greater the possibilities for flexibility and for teachers to cover one another’s needs.

Attitudes of flexible worker and line manager

  • Flexible working works well when both parties are willing to be flexible and there is give and take on both sides. ‘Flexibility on both sides helps it along in lots of ways.’
  • Trust is also key to ensure flexible working works: ‘Trust… has definitely been a key ingredient in my view where I’ve seen it work well.’
  • Having a supportive line manager is vital. ‘It is all about having a supportive leader who values flexible working and doesn’t see it as a barrier.’
  • Output and impact are more important than how many hours you are present at school or in the office.

Communication, technology and good management

  • Good communication is vital, particularly passing information between teachers who share a class or form group: managing communication and workload so that the students and families get seamless provision.
  • Invest in leadership across the school, having enough middle leaders to support communication and drive the relationships between teachers who share classes and form groups. It is important that leaders share the minutes of team meetings too.
  • Invest in technology, such as Google apps (where staff can collaborate on documents easily), and other resources that facilitate better communication.
  • Ensure that internal CPD is recorded and materials/recordings are held on the website, so that those who are part-time, particularly those not at work on the CPD day, can catch up afterwards.

External factors and top-level support

  • The recruitment crisis in the education sector has helped. When the organisation cannot get good candidates willing to work full-time, it opens the conversation about whether it could get better people by offering part-time roles or other forms of flexible working, and opened up the opportunity for exploring whether there are great people out there who are not currently teaching, but could do if offered flexible working.
  • Restricted budgets mean schools must not over-recruit within functions and therefore become more open to the notion of part-time workers in order only to employ the capacity needed.
  • Being part of the CIPD Flexible Hiring Champions initiative and this research project, and having support from the CEO for that, means that flexible working has been talked about at executive board level and in forums of head teachers. It is seen to be coming from the top and is on the organisation’s agenda as something that could have real benefits.
  • A head teacher who is supportive and really recognises that to keep good people, you have to be able to support everyone to be the best they can be in every aspect of their life: ‘it has to come from the top down.’ 

Culture of the organisation and other organisational initiatives

  • The culture of the organisation is that flexibility is possible: not that there is an open door to anything, but that ‘the school would only say no if there was a real reason to say no’. This is not true in all schools, so heads need to remind people that this is the culture we want. ‘Open culture in the school.’
  • Make flexible working an organisation-wide initiative, rather than just having local pockets of flexible working. ‘As an organisation we are talking about it a lot more and talking about it organisation-wide, so that will help us to implement flexible working more across the whole trust.’
  • There is a big push in the organisation about wellbeing and flexible working has been intertwined with that. A lot of sickness absence in the education sector is attributed to stress and flexible working is one way of being able to support people. 

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

Flexible worker perspective

Career, family and mental health

  • Being able to progress with your career as well as have time with children, particularly when they are younger. ‘I’ve been in a leadership position in three schools and brought up children, so I’ve been able to do the two things that are both really important to me at the same time… I feel very lucky… I know others who have had to sacrifice something, either home life or climbing the career ladder.’
  • Mental health is better: flexible working enables you to feel that you’ve got the balance to get things done in all aspects of your life. Flexible working allows you to be less stressed and not feel guilty, much more resilient and able to cope with the job. 

Talent and productivity

  • If a school doesn’t enable people to work flexibly, it risks losing a talented part of the workforce: a senior leader left a previous job because a new head teacher was not prepared to have members of his leadership team work part-time. ‘It is short-sighted… not to allow flexible working. [Here] people have invested in me and I have been a loyal employee and given back to the organisation.’
  • Part-time teachers in leadership roles will have a smaller teaching load, but the leadership responsibilities do not decrease: ‘…good value for money!’
  • The flexible worker is better able to do their job. If they feel guilty or stressed in other parts of life, they cannot do the job so well; whereas, when they have an appropriate work–life balance, they are able to be more productive at work.
  • Sets a good example to the rest of the staff.

Line manager perspective

Retaining and valuing staff

  • Holding onto staff is key and having them feel valued is absolutely critical. ‘We do all sorts of things to keep staff. …flexible working is one of those things that is so important… it is part of a much bigger package of investing in our staff.’
  • Create a culture that will work for staff and students, in which they feel valued as individuals.

HR perspective

Wellbeing and morale

  • Anecdotally, the HR interviewee reported having heard a lot about the positive impact of flexible working on morale and how people feel about where they work.
  • When people have flexibility to work in a way that suits them and the organisation, they feel they have more control, and that supports wellbeing.
  • Where the organisation has agreed flexible working for someone as a result of a health condition, people say how supported they feel. Everyone wins in these situations because the individual stays in the organisation, takes less sick leave, and feels well supported. 

Recruitment and retention

  • In a number of cases, including the HR interviewee’s own role, the organisation might not have been able to recruit if it had not been open to flexible working as there were no full-time candidates of the quality they were looking for, but filling vacancies with flexible workers has worked.
  • It is also about keeping good people by recognising that everyone has other things in their lives in addition to their role in the school.

Challenges/barriers to implementing flexible working

Flexible worker perspective

Attitudes and emotions

  • Dealing with others’ perceptions: they don’t expect flexible working to work, so you have to prove them wrong. You have to stay in touch, check emails and be available on the end of the phone on non-work days.
  • Feeling guilty and as if you need to make excuses on non-work days.
  • Working four days a week in role that included behaviour and student welfare was challenging for the flexible worker interviewee, as it was very hard to walk away on a Thursday, knowing she would not be there on a Friday and having to hand over a difficult situation half-finished (for example parent and student meetings).

Practicalities

  • Working fewer hours does restrict you in terms of time. For example, you can’t arrange meetings before school on days when you have a late start.

Line manager perspective 

Poor communication and split classes/form groups

  • A key anxiety is always around the impact of flexible working teachers on the timetable and need to have more than one member of staff responsible for lessons and form periods.
  • The main barriers are where the quality of communication and leadership has not been good enough.
  • Parental concerns: Parents want as good provision as possible for their children and where flexible working hasn’t been effective, parents are quick to point it out.

Concerns about workload

  • Workload is an issue particularly for teaching staff as schools are asking all staff to do more than ever before.
  • Those who have responsibilities for leadership tend to do a full-time role in part-time hours, working from home on non-work days. ‘I’m acutely aware and concerned… people say that it is okay because it is their lifestyle, but it is a moral concern and we need to keep an eye on workload and wellbeing.’

HR perspective

Mindsets

  • There is a mindset that certain roles cannot be done flexibly, particularly where there are concerns about the impact on children. For example, some people say ‘children need consistency’ and argue that job-share and part-time roles disrupt this.
  • The biggest resistance to flexible working seems to be around making middle-leader roles flexible – roles involving teaching plus leadership responsibility.
  • Problems can arise when someone is already in a role and wants something different. ‘When it is about finding a way to make flexible working work for an existing person in an existing role, it can be that mindsets are harder to shift.’

Other issues

  • Sometimes the reluctance to give flexible working is not really about the flexibility, but an underlying performance issue or other concern about the person who has requested flexible working. In these cases, the underlying issue needs addressing because it will be a problem however they are working.

Overcoming the barriers and challenges

Flexible worker perspective

Attitudes, trust and understanding

  • The person who is working flexibly has to be flexible too; for example, come in on a non-work day if there is something important going on, such as appraisals or staff meetings. It is about give and take, working together with your line manager and accepting that there will be occasions when you have to give up some of the time when you should be at home, then you are allowed to take time elsewhere.
  • Trust is key; it is not about recording everything officially, but being trusted to do a good job.
  • You also need to recognise the impact on others and find ways to mitigate those.

Practicalities

  • For some roles, it may work better to be in school every day with shorter days, rather than having a day off.

Line manager perspective

Communication

  • Use dialogue at a leadership level to talk about the issues and putting in place a culture where the impact of flexible working is part of the many things that we monitor and talk about.
  • Engage openly, proactively and responsively with parents – parent forums, a range of ways parents can contact staff, and contacting them early and directly about any concerns to explain mitigations being put in place.

Proactive management

  • A good timetabler can help minimise the need to split classes/form groups.
  • Carefully pair people who have shared responsibility for classes/form groups to ensure a blend of experience and that one of the teachers is really strong to prevent downsides of not having a single teacher for the class/form group.

HR perspective

Understand and overcome fears

  • It is vital to understand the concerns about impact on children and parents and to think through all the implications of flexible working in order to mitigate any negatives. To address the argument about children needing consistency, show that there is still consistency for the children, one teacher for Monday–Wednesday and another Thursday–Friday.
  • Ask senior people to really articulate why they think flexible working wouldn’t work, then talk through options to overcome concerns. Sometimes there are genuine reasons for reluctance around flexible working, and then it is about looking for compromises or other arrangements. The individual requesting flexible working is often open to alternatives, so HR should encourage leaders to think through different options, instead of doing things in the same way.
  • Sometimes the fear is that ‘everyone will want it’, which can be resolved by making flexible working case by case and role by role. Sometimes the fear is, ‘if I say yes to flexible working and it doesn’t work, I will be stuck’, but it is possible just to trial it first.
  • The HR team working flexibly means they can use themselves as examples, which can help overcome fears and doubts.

Point out the advantages

  • Talk to heads about how they may be able to recruit better people if they offer flexible working at the time of hire. When they struggle to recruit, being open to different arrangements may help them find someone. 

How to measure and evaluate the impact of flexible working

As it is early days for the organisation’s flexible working strategy, GLF Schools does not have systems in place to know what is working/not working. ‘We know about the successes anecdotally, but are not really recording the data at the moment.’ However, they have talked about ways they would like to measure and evaluate flexible working, such as: 

  • Compare absence rates for flexible working/non-flexible working – it would be powerful if they could show that flexible working staff take less time off.
  • Recruitment – if they could show that they were filling vacancies more quickly and/or have fewer vacancies as a result of recruiting flexibly.
  • Turnover for flexible working/non-flexible working – show that they are retaining staff better in flexible working roles.
  • Staff surveys.

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