A supportive employer

Independent Living Fund Scotland won the workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for larger SMEs for its flexible working policy and its support for women going through the menopause.



Independent Living Fund (ILF) Scotland not only offers a day one right to flexible working, but has been at the forefront of moves towards greater understanding of the impact of the menopause at work.

Their inclusive approach, which they share widely, has made them a beacon for best practice in Scotland, brought them a high calibre of applicants and won them this year’s workingmums.co.uk’s Top Employer Award for larger SMEs. “People say we are a breath of fresh air,” says Executive Business Manager Aileen McNiven who leads on HR, Governance, H&S and Office Management functions.

The organisation, which supports disabled people to live independently, employs 52 people. It is still relatively young – it started four years ago. As a government body which is not attached to any particular department it has quite a lot of independence. That has shaped the organisation. The CEO and Chief Operating Officer wanted to base it on best practice in flexible working from day one. That has made maintaining its flexible culture easier as there is no legacy culture to change.

Everyone in the organisation works flexibly. Informal flexible working is the most popular, but some of the Assessors prefer a more formal agreement, such as compressed hours. Flexi hours is the most common form of flexible working, but all staff have laptops and phones and are able to work remotely.

Twenty eight of the organisation’s employees work on assessments of disabled people and all work from home, covering the whole of Scotland and Northern Ireland. They only come into the office for training, which is scheduled on an annual basis so people can plan ahead for it.

Careful planning

Aileen says that the system is based on respect, dignity and trust, for instance, trusting that if someone can’t do full-time hours one week they will make them up the next. Careful planning is at the heart of their way of working. For instance, there is a management meeting every Wednesday and any important team meetings or development days are usually planned on an annual basis, with people given six months’ notice of generic training sessions and part-time workers’ needs taken into account. “We try to plan at the start of every year when we are doing the budgets. Being organised makes it work,” says Aileen.

Line managers are also encouraged to plan ahead on a two-weekly basis about where employees will be and to ensure the organisation’s helpline is manned at all times.

A high proportion of the ILF Scotland’s employees are over 35 so the flexibility they need is not so much around looking after young children. Many, however, are part of the so-called sandwich generation, with older children and ageing parents to care for.

Aileen says the system works, but that it is kept under review to ensure it works for everyone. It is not without its challenges. Historically, its Assessors have come from local authority backgrounds where flexible working is administered differently and Assessors can find it challenging with the change in attitude.

It is important, therefore, to reiterate messages about flexibility and to train new managers in managing flexible teams. “We cannot become complacent,” says Aileen.

Led from the top

The induction process, which she leads, is very important to ensuring everyone is on board with ILF Scotland’s flexible and family friendly culture from the start. That culture is led from the top. The COO, for instance, regularly picks up his children from school and will tell people that is what he is doing. That helps to counter individuals’ sense of guilt at doing something similar.

ILF Scotland advertises all jobs with Family Friendly Scotland’s strapline that it is willing to consider flexible working from day one. Aileen says the organisation has recently had experience of job redesign when a candidate for a new role in IT asked to do what was advertised as a full-time role on a 24-hours a week basis.

“We looked at workloads and impact on others and dropped some of the non-essential parts of the role,” says Aileen.

Other changes included using automation to save time on certain parts of the role and agile working. The role will be reviewed in one to ones to ensure that the employee does not end up working more than their hours and burning out. Aileen admits that job redesign is not easy.

Menopause support

Due to the make-up of its workforce, ILF Scotland has also been at the vanguard of other diversity and inclusion initiatives, for instance, moves to recognise the potential impact of the menopause at work. This was led by Aileen herself, who says she was on the verge of giving up work around two years ago due to the severity of the symptoms she was experiencing.

In July 2018 she launched ILF Scotland’s menopause support policy, but has since amended this to a support document. “We decided that we couldn’t policy-ise everything,” says Aileen.

It includes an in-depth manager’s guide to how to support women who are experiencing severe symptoms of the menopause. The aim is to encourage greater understanding, but also to provide information and training about the reasonable adjustments managers can make and how they can approach conversations on the subject. ILF Scotland is also setting up menopause cafes to encourage greater openness about the menopause.

That approach has not just helped employees. Aileen started off by speaking about her own personal experience and says it is vital to raise awareness, not just to support women, but also their partners. She has since spoken about the organisation’s approach at several conferences. “Just knowing people understand the issues better helps a lot and that women affected can work flexibly if they need to. It relieves the anxiety and stigma,” she says.

ILF Scotland  also has a Shared Parental Leave policy, an Enhanced Maternity policy offering 26 weeks at full pay, which is mirrored in Adoption and Shared Parental Leave policies and a phased return policy which allows parents coming back from parental leave to work part time for six weeks while receiving a full-time salary. In addition, managers are given training on how to avoid conscious and unconscious bias.

Spreading the message

Aileen has also been working with recruiters and agencies to spread best practice. “When I talk to recruiters the first thing I talk about is our culture and values,” she says. “Every decision we take is for the disabled people we support. The flexible working we offer makes our workforce happier, which helps disabled people. If recruitment agencies do not respect that we will look elsewhere.”

She says that approach has had a big impact on agencies and that what ILF Scotland is doing has spread through word of mouth. Some refer to ILF Scotland  on their websites to show the importance of a strong culture and values. “We keep making the point that this is our culture and has been since day one,” says Aileen. “We have incorporated it into our development days with training days about flexible working, what it means and how it is a two-way relationship.”

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