Best for flexible working

Work life balance is hugely important to many older workers. We spoke to Roche, winner of this year’s WM People Award for Best for Flexible Working about how they have embedded flexible working across the organisation in a way that is consistent and allows for individuals’ needs.


Flexible working is increasingly sought after by workers of all ages, but’s recent survey showed the value older workers place on work life balance. It found work life balance is important or very important for 94% of older workers. Here we look at how pharmaceutical company Roche, winner of this year’s WM People Award for Best for Flexible Working makes it easier for everyone to get the flexibility they need.

When Covid struck, Roche was ready for the change it would mean for how we work. It had just piloted its How we roll flexible working programme and had done the groundwork for location agnostic recruitment in the UK.

That work which aims to embed guilt-free flexibility was recognised earlier this year when Roche won the WM People Best for Flexible Working Award.

The rationale for the How we roll programme sprang from a desire to ensure greater fairness when it came to flexible working. While Roche has long had a flexible culture, as in many organisations there were pockets where flexibility was more routine than in others. The company wanted to create a more consistent approach. In 2019 it decided that it needed a new programme which could get everyone on board, address the sceptics, ensure consistency and take away the guilt some people were feeling about flexible working – the feeling that, despite all the policies and practice, they needed to justify working flexibly.

Another aim was to give people a fear of missing out if they didn’t embrace flexible working and get them motivated about it. “We wanted to expand people’s horizons and see that flexible working works both ways and is about more than working from home,” says Sam Eustace-Smith, Employee Experience Partner at Roche. “We wanted to build people’s trust and ensure that flexible working was guilt-free. We knew we had a good culture, but we wanted to look at what else we needed to do and what was missing.”

Agile working principles

From conversations that began in HR the company put together a sprint team from across the organisation based around agile working principles. They researched what other companies were doing and their learnings from that as well as taking advice from HR industry groups and they tried to adapt all of that for Roche. They discussed different scenarios, but the main thrust behind the programme was the general rule that, if the culture was right, it could work for most people. They came up with a pilot programme.

They then faced what Sam calls the ‘red face test’ – could they justify it to clients. The pilot, which involved a mix of teams – from those whose managers were involved in the sprint to those which were less flexible – helped them to see what people did as a result and what they thought about flexible working. “We had to make it something that was understood and could be used by everyone. We knew a blanket policy risked alienating some people,” said Sam. “Different teams needed the time and space to embrace it and think how it could apply to them.”

The company spent a lot of time sharing case studies which showed how the programme worked for everyone. This helped people to understand it in a deeper way than it just being a policy document. The pilot finished in January 2020 and worked well. The team worked on more case studies, some tweaks and some FAQs to bring it all to life. There was a soft launch from January to March 2020 and then Covid happened. “We had done all this work about working flexibly and then suddenly most of us were working from home,” says Sam. “We had everything ready.”

By September 2020 when restrictions were easing a little, Roche did a hard launch, building on what had been learned about flexible working from the first lockdown, for instance, leaders having walking meetings, people having phone meetings to vary from zoom, people working around child or elder care…Covid also showed how important flexible working is.

Location agnostic

During the pandemic Roche has also become location agnostic [in the UK] for recruitment purposes. This, including the potential risks, had been worked on before Covid – indeed in the week before the first lockdown. It enables Roche to reach the widest talent pool and open ‘a whole new door’, as Sam says. It also helps with retention following structural changes which entailed bringing some field-based staff who lived further away into head office positions. Roche pays for their travel costs if they have to come into head office and specifies that they might have to come in up to 26 days a year.

Sam is very proud of the policy. “No other companies are doing it in the way we have to the best of my knowledge,” she says. She adds that the external environment is not up to speed with the kind of changes that people are demanding and that Roche is happy to be at the forefront.

When it comes to the widespread move to hybrid working, Sam says that at Roche it is about teams working together on when in-person meetings are needed and where and how work can be done in the most efficient way. She says Roche doesn’t want to mandate returns to the office, but rather to help people see the benefits of both remote and in-person working and to understand that flexible working is about more than remote working. Head office was refurbished during the pandemic to create more collaborative and hybrid working spaces.

Roche is also constantly monitoring any issues that might come up as a result of the easing of restrictions through a bi-weekly survey that includes questions about work life balance. This is in addition to its annual engagement survey.

“We are trying to have conversations – in a way that is consistent and takes account of equal opportunities and access issues – about what brings us together,” says Sam. Her team, for instance, has a hub day in the office and a shared calendar so everyone knows who is in and can block time to catch up.

The next step is a wider conversation about how all of Roche’s policies fit together which will be reflected in its soon-to-be-launched people strategy. It has recently, for instance, launched a menopause policy, updated its carer policy and launched policies on domestic abuse and pregnancy loss. Sam says How we roll underpins it all. “Everything is based around inclusion,” she says.

*Roche is just one of the award-winning who will feature in WM People’s forthcoming Best Practice Report.

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