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Key to happiness

When Syd Nadim started his own company at the age of 23, he began with the “golden rule”. He had been made redundant for the second time, and didn’t like the way he’d been treated. His own staff would receive the same respect that he wanted for himself.

“I thought about the way I wanted to work. I didn’t want the nine-to-five culture,” said Nadim, now 33 and the chief executive of a growing company recognised by the department of trade and industry as one of the best in the UK to adopt work-life-balance policies.

Clock is the digital media business he established with a £3,000 loan and £500 grant from the Prince’s Trust. Nearly 10 years on, it employs 22 highly skilled staff and works with such clients as Times Online and the comedians Eddie Izzard and Bill Bailey, building, designing and maintaining their websites. In all that time, only one worker has left the firm.

Clock, based in Watford, Hertfordshire, is one of five small-to-medium-sized businesses featured in a report (Flexible working: good business; how small firms are doing it) published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the British Chambers of Commerce. The report demonstrates the value — in pounds and pence as well as less tangible measures — of flexible working.

Its author, Mike Emmott, employee-relations adviser at the CIPD, said the five had key things in common. The managers were all “people” people; they were good at communication and fostered a caring ethos in their businesses. This meant they had low absenteeism, very high retention of expertise and experience, and workers who looked after each other.

Emmott was particularly struck by how policies promoting work-life balance were “so intimately linked with business ideas about profitability. It’s about resolving business issues, not just about being lovey-dovey”.

The report also said that training opportunities were vital. Types of flexible working used by the firms included part-time work, job-sharing and the opportunity to work from home.

Clock is so flexible that it sets up new branches when staff members move out of the Watford area, in order to retain employees and keep the clients happy. In the most extreme case, an office was set up in Shanghai when a gifted Chinese boffin was unable to get his UK visa renewed. Now Clock is doing two projects in Mandarin. Last year, the company increased turnover by 52 per cent, and this year it looks set to be even higher.

Sandwell Community Caring Trust looks after 350 adults and children with learning and physical disabilities, older people and their families. It is a 24-hour-a-day business. Staff agree on their hours when they join, and are invited to request changes as their circumstances alter. “If staff feel unable to cope with a specific task, they are encouraged to tell their manager,” the report said.

It’s easy to see why Sandwell, based in the West Midlands, was second in this year’s Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list. It came first nationally in the work-life-balance category.

Sandwell’s employee turnover is only four per cent, compared with 20 per cent or more across the care sector. Since 1997, the number of staff has gone up from 60 to 280 and business turnover has increased from £1m to £9.5m. The average time taken as sick leave is only 0.6 days a year.

Teresa Aitken, founder-director of PI Costing, a niche company based in Doncaster undertaking legal services on behalf of solicitors, said trust and good communication were essential.

The company offers “duvet days”. At the discretion of the manager, staff who have worked extra hard can spend an extra hour in bed. Aitken also says if someone has finished his or her work in the minimum time, she is happy for them to go shopping.

Most of Aitken’s 20 employees are young women. Some have had babies and want to work shorter hours, or to work several days a week from home. Homeworkers, she has found, are 20-50 per cent more productive.

It can be difficult ensuring that home workers feel involved in the company. Small firms such as PI Costing and Clock have regular staff meetings and maintain communication in other ways. Both are also able to offer less competitive salaries because people like working for them.

In all these firms, standards are high. One individual agreed to leave Clock after abusing the system for a second time. “This has demonstrated to all employees management’s zero tolerance on breaching the trust placed on them,” the report said. And at Sandwell, where the clients are vulnerable adults and children, there is no question of shifts going uncovered.

TIPS FOR FLEXIBLE WORKING

Understand your business. Consider what is right for your organisation and your employees’ needs. How can flexible working improve the service you offer your customers'
Communicate effectively. Make sure that people are aware of the opportunities.
Define roles and responsibilities. It’s about give and take — not just individuals getting what they want.
Try it out. You don’t have to do it all at once. Ask people to come up with their own ideas.
Make flexible working acceptable. Senior staff need to lead by example.
Measure and evaluate. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

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