How is flexible working shifting the recruitment landscape? In this interview, the UK's leading Work Life Charity, Working Families, explores the topic with SF's CEO, Saira Demmer...
As the nation was thrust into lockdown, many businesses went into survival mode, responding to the shifting sands by setting their sights on coming out the other side in one piece. But SF Recruitment saw a chance for transformative change, an opportunity to realise long-held ambitions for a more autonomous way of working. And it worked. Not only did productivity and profit see an enormous boost but staff retention saw a lift and they were able to close their gender pay gap.
So successful was the new approach that SF Recruitment now recruit all of their internal roles as flexible by default. And driven by their belief in the benefits of flexible working, they have implemented a highly successful ‘Flex for Success’ campaign, a pledge to candidates to help them find flexible work solutions that work for both candidate and employer alike. We spent some time talking to CEO, Saira Demmer, about the importance and impact of their own flexible working policy and how this inspired their Flex for Success initiative.
Working Families: Flex for Success shows real commitment to flexible working, what gave you the impetus for such a bold campaign?
Saira Demmer: During the pandemic, we had this amazing opportunity to rip the plaster off and start afresh by implementing our own flexible working policy. It was something I’d always planned to introduce as I believe deeply in the positive’s autonomy can bring and I knew first-hand how important environment is for getting the best out of people. Almost immediately, we realised the incredible results it was yielding, so there was no turning back.
Because of our own success and what we were hearing from the market, we knew we were in a unique position to promote and deliver the flexibility our candidates were crying out for. By shouting about our own positive experiences and sharing our passionate belief in its potential, we hope to be an example to other businesses.
WF:What do you think will convince other employers to do the same?
SD: Most people haven’t led or managed a flexible workforce before, so some apprehension is completely understandable. It will take time and experience to test the waters and figure out what works and what nuances are required in different sectors or business models. But having access to compelling evidence, as well as other business case studies that demonstrate tangible success will go a long way to helping other’s make the changes. And sometimes, you just have to be bold and a take a leap of faith.
WF: What do you hope Flex for Success will achieve?
SD: We find that despite the huge changes to work post-pandemic, many employees still worry that asking for flexibility would reflect badly on them, and employers worry that it is a concession that comes at the cost of productivity. We want to use our voice and platform to help change that narrative; to recognise that flexibility starts with a conversation and that dialogue helps to navigate changing demands at different times. In essence, it’s a true partnership working between employer and employee, and it generates a culture of openness and trust.
We hope to lead by example and initiate conversations around flexibility as the norm; for employers when they are designing their job roles, building their teams, writing job adverts, and for candidates to feel that they can talk honestly in an interview or in job applications about hours, location, caring responsibilities, other hats they wear – without penalty or detriment to the outcome.
WF:Against the backdrop of nationwide staff shortages, you’ve managed to expand your workforce and reduce turnover, how much has your human-centric approach contributed to this?
SD: Enormously. We’ve given our people the room to mould their schedule around their personal circumstances and their preferred style of working, and that trust and freedom has been a huge draw for talent. We’ve threaded the theme of personal autonomy all the way through to the way we deliver on behalf of our clients and candidates – we trust our people to do what’s best and know that one size doesn’t fit all. And because we recognise this individuality, we tailor career paths to the aspirations and strengths of an individual. Last year we created five new job titles to accommodate career goals, two of which are part time. We’re attracting and retaining talent that we would have lost or missed out on, and as a result, we have a team of people who are motivated to succeed because they are achieving a work-life balance.
WF: How have you managed to normalise flexible working?
SD: From the get-go the commitment to flexibility came from the top, and because we’ve led by example, I think it was very easy for the whole business to get behind our new operating model. All the senior management team have families and will flex our hours up and down depending on when we need to give more to work or more to our home lives. When our employees see us making it work, they are inspired to follow a similar path. They trust that it’s not just lip-service, because we are all living and breathing it. We have also introduced measures such as clearly indicating our commitment in job adverts, and briefing interview panels to initiate a dialogue about flexible working so people know how open we are from the start.
WF: As a small business, what was the biggest challenge you faced in introducing flexible working and how did you overcome this?
SD: As a people business, keeping our connectedness and culture is critical for a healthy working environment and we’ve found that most of our people are at their best when they have a mix of office and home working. Full-time homeworking doesn’t tend to get the best results for us, but with our commitment to flexibility, we’ve been able to work with our teams to find days that work for everyone to come into the office which helps to maintain that core culture. Balancing personal flexibility with maintaining a strong company culture is a challenge, but we’ve made it a shared responsibility to get this bit right.
WF: What change in your recruitment process has made the biggest impact?
SD: With every recruitment we keep an open mind and take nothing off the table, and assume nothing either. We have an understanding that every situation is unique, so an open conversation between employee and employer always has to be the starting point.
WF: Why is it important to share success stories?
SD: We all learn through experience – either our own or others’. The more examples of success we see, the more confidence it gives us to try things for ourselves or to try again if we have failed. Very few major successes come without a few bumps, so knowing the whole story is never a bad thing. We use videos, blogs and press releases to share the stories of our employees who are living proof of using flexibility at the same time as thriving in their roles.
WF: How do you communicate your commitment to flexible working to potential talent
SD: We developed a new employer brand called The SF Experience© which features flexible working at its core, and we adjusted our business model to support the new approach. We even stripped working hours from our employment contracts so that staff can see our commitment and trust in them from day one. Plus, every single one of our employees is a living testament to it; we actively encourage potential talent to speak to our team who are all huge advocates for our flexible working policy.
National Work Life Week runs from 10-14 October 2022.