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How Westminster embraced flexible working as a Timewise Council

After following our flexible working accreditation programme, Westminster City Council has just been awarded Timewise Council status. Claire Campbell, Timewise’s public sector Programme Director, explains why the council got involved in the programme, and the difference it’s already making. This case study forms part of the wellbeing and inclusion resource.

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In 2016, as part of a revaluation of their working practices, Westminster City Council decided to remodel their City Hall base. Their aim was to make it a better working space for their own staff, and to make part of it available to rent, as a way of generating extra income.

From a practical point of view, this required them to reduce their desk-to-person ratio, by encouraging more employees to work flexibly. But the team at Westminster quickly realised that they needed to tackle their workplace culture if flexible working was to be successful. So, having spoken to their colleagues at Camden, who had been on a similar journey to become the first accredited Timewise Council, they contacted us for support.

As Aruj Haider, OD Advisor for Westminster explains, “We soon worked out that the office move was an opportunity to transform the way we work. We wanted to find the best way to build flexible working into our strategy, and knew we’d do a better job if we had some expert advice.”

Building flexible working in from the top down

The Timewise programme lasts around four months, and aims to help the council create a flexible working improvement plan, through which they not only become more flexible themselves, but also use their experience to influence other local employers.

The team at Westminster were keen to get input from across their organisation, so they set up an agile working group that was led by John Quinn, Executive Director of Corporate Services, and had representatives from different departments, who were tasked with getting involved. And critically, the programme also involved engaging the top team. As John explains:

“We knew if we were going to make flexible working a success, we’d need to ensure that any culture change was implemented across the board. The leadership workshops were particularly valuable as they’ve made sure that the focus on flexible job design starts right at the top.”

Transformational change at every level

So what has changed at Westminster since they started the programme? The answer is, a great deal.

Today, ‘agile working’ (the term they use internally) is at the heart of their strategy. They’ve developed a clear leadership vision around it that encourages trust and focuses performance management on outcomes, not inputs. They’ve created principles and protocols so that everyone is clear about what agile working involves, and developed an agile working hub where everything agile sits together, including a tech toolkit to support staff who are out there doing it.

And that’s just a snapshot; the change is being led from the top but is cascading down through the council at every level.

The end of the programme is just the beginning

But the team know that this isn’t the end – it’s just the beginning. As Aruj points out:

“Understanding the issues around flexible working and culture isn’t a quick fix. We need to make sure everyone in our organisation remains clear about the benefits of working flexibly, so they are aware of, and take advantage of it; it’s a case of repeat repeat repeat.

Flexible hiring is obviously critical, so we need to continue our work in this area too. We’ve already created resources to support flexible hiring, and are planning a workshop on flexible job design for our HR leaders. “This is all part of our drive to ensure that Westminster is a fair, inclusive and diverse place to work”.

So, what advice does John have for other councils or organisations who are considering a similar move?

“Start as early as you can. It does take time to change mindsets and it’s worth making sure you don’t have to rush the process.

My other piece of advice would be to get some expert help; Timewise’s support has been invaluable. They have helped us to think differently about how to make jobs truly flexible, got the senior team really engaged and have brought the concept of flexible working to life in a way that helps everyone buy into it. I’d definitely recommend the accreditation programme for councils.”

To find out more about becoming a Timewise Council or the other ways that Timewise could support your organisation, please call Claire on 020 7633 4432 or email [email protected]