SMEs and Flexible Working: the Perfect Match?
Flexible working could be a match made in heaven for small but ambitious companies because it allows staff to grow with the business. While children and the business are small, staff can do shorter hours and as they get older they are often able to take on more work. One company which has benefited from hiring flexible workers is Hireserve Ltd, a specialist e-recruitment technology business based in the UK. It was set up by Jeremy Ovenden in 1997 and now has over 40 clients both in the UK and in Europe. Jeremy's wife, Karen, who is a director of the company, worked behind the scenes to help build up the company while their two daughters were very young.
Around three years ago the couple realised they needed to expand, but they did not know how to do this, where to find people or whether they needed full time or part time staff. Initially they took on full time technical staff, but as they grew they realised they needed more professional staff to help with finance, human resources and publicity. However, being still fairly small, they didn't need full-time staff. "I was very aware that there were many well qualified professionals out there looking for flexible working, most of them women, who had the skills we needed," said Karen. "We wanted someone to fit the business's needs, but also I felt very strongly that there are so many women out there who are exceptionally good workers and committed but cannot find positions where they could have a career and be with their children."
Karen says she was very lucky in the part-time work she found when she went back to work after having her two daughters, who are now 19 and 17. She had taken some time out and was working part time from home at a university. When her youngest daughter was at school, she took on more hours on campus. She had been a conference organiser before and was asked to take on setting up a series of day courses. When she was finding it too hard to balance her work and family life, inevitably when school holidays approached, she told her manager. "It was then I heard the glorious words 'What would work for you, Karen?'" says Karen."I couldn't believe that they would adapt the job because I was worth keeping." She started working term time only. Eventually she was working two part time jobs, one of them on Hireserve until she realised she needed to have a bit more time and she is now working full time on Hireserve. She says: "As I was treated well I was very keen that if we were ever in the position to hire that we would help women who wanted to work and bring up their children. It is not rocket science to make it work. If you find the right people everyone wins. That has been our experience."
The company has three part-time workers covering finance, HR and pr. Karen says they are all very committed and can be "amazingly flexible" if they need them to do something out of their hours. In return, if children are ill or there is some other emergency, the business either allows staff to work from home or take time off to look after a sick child. Beverley Usher is the HR manager at Hireserve and has over 15 years' experience behind her. She went down to a four-day week with her previous employer after her first child was born, but says she was really doing five days. After the birth of her second child she became a full-time mum, but "began to crave the challenges of the corporate world" but did not want to work full time. Hireserve was the solution and allows her to keep up to date with HR legislation while fitting work around her family.
Melanie Cantle is Finance Manager at the company. She has13 years' experience in finance and is a qualified Chartered Accountant, having trained at Coopers & Lybrand. Before her daughter Aimee was born, she worked for Eli Lilly and Company, supporting the manufacturing, marketing and European operations at the company. She then took two years out and returned to work one day a week at the SME covering for her father-in-law who was finance director until his sudden death. She joined Hireserve in May 2007 and says her job is "an all-encompassing role", from invoicing and management accounting to representing the company at an annual trade fair. She says: "I feel that my previous mix of experience and companies works well, managing the needs of a small company while bringing the knowledge and tools that will equip it well as it grows."
Emma Johnson has been PR manager at Hireserve since March. She has two children, aged 3 and 10 months. She had been working three days a week at her previous firm, but found the leap from one to two children difficult and wanted to work less. Moreover, her eldest son had quite a traumatic start in life and suffers from a rare birth defect so has regular hospital appointments to attend. She works five hours a week, but envisages that her work will grow as the company grows and her children get older. She works mainly from home, but goes to the office once a month to catch up on what is going on. Her mum lives nearby so can help with childcare. "I love being at home with the boys, but I don't want to give up something I have been doing for my whole career," she says, adding that she has worked in PR for over 10 years. "Everything moves so fast in work these days and when I thought about having to take time out I worried about how I would ever get back."
Karen remarks that she went to a meeting recently and the first thing everyone did was sort out childcare arrangements for the next meeting. "A colleague remarked how refreshing it was to arrange this first rather then pretending that people did not have children," she said. "I have always felt strongly that families are the most important thing in our lives and we should acknowledge that in the way we work," she says. Hireserve used a variety of different methods to find their part-time staff, including an agency for women returners, word of mouth and professional networks. Having had such a good experience, Karen is "amazed" more companies don't embrace flexible working. "Many organisations like ours could offer a bit more choice so women can have a family life and work, a calm family life, not one where they have the awful fear of having to ring in when their child has a sore throat. They should be able to ring and say my child comes first. It's not utopia at Hireserve, but we are now in the position to make it a little easier for people."