If you had to pick one word to describe your soldier’s job, it probably wouldn’t be “flexible”. Families fit around an unpredictable schedule with early starts and late nights, lost weekends and long spells of separation. The perfect work-life balance may seem impossible to achieve – but times are changing. Jill Misson reports…
MANY employers are embracing flexible working and the Army is no exception. From April 2019, all serving personnel will be able to apply to work part-time or to limit the number of days spent away from home, for up to three years.
The MOD hopes that Flexible Service will be more family-friendly, as Group Captain Justin Fowler explained: “We need to modernise to continue to recruit and retain the talented people that the Armed Forces needs,” he said. “The impact on family life is consistently the highest reason people give for thinking of leaving and, in a recent survey, 70 per cent of our personnel said they wanted opportunities for a more flexible approach to work.”
Applications will be supported where the Army is confident it can manage the impact on operational capability.
Maj Gen Chris Ghika, Head Personnel Capability, said: “Flexible Service recognises the vital role families play in supporting soldiers.
“There is, and has always been, a balance to be struck between the needs of the individual and the needs of the Army.”
Fitting with families
For soldiers’ relatives, flexibility for their own employment journey is key to making Army life fit. Spouses who have been in a job for more than 26 weeks have a statutory right to apply for flexible working, although AFF is urging employers to extend that right to cover all staff.
Our Employment Specialist Laura Lewin said: “We work to educate employers about the importance of flexible working – it can be the difference between keeping or losing a fantastic member of staff.”
Army spouse Kelly Clements enjoys working on board Virgin Trains as a customer service host. She said: “At work I feel like I’m me and I’m achieving something, so even with the long commute it’s worth it for my independence and sanity.”
Kelly was struggling to arrange childcare around her shifts, so she requested flexible working. “My manager has always been supportive if my husband has deployed or my son is poorly,” she explained. “We sat down and devised a roster that is manageable.”
Armed Forces Covenant signatories often make a commitment to allow spouses to work flexibly. Ruth Fry is a senior radiographer at the Great Western Hospital in Swindon. When her husband was due to deploy, she needed to stop working on Fridays to be able to collect their daughter from boarding school.
She said: “Having a policy in place was a big relief. One of the senior managers was pleased that it was making a real difference to staff from the military community. If I hadn’t been able to reduce my hours, I’d probably have had to hand in my notice.”
Reservist and Army spouse, Charlotte has negotiated a flexible arrangement in her job with her employer, Network Rail. She said: “I can partake in any Reserves work with the understanding that this will not be paid but agreed with my manager. Often a training weekend requires travelling on a Friday, so I have arranged to work compressed hours to finish early.
“I believe Network Rail is such an understanding business for members of the Armed Forces both serving and former personnel.”
Some employers can support flexible working requests when an Army family is posted. Recruit for Spouses has found that retailers including Waitrose, B&Q and M&S actively assist employees to relocate their roles.
When Edith Wilkinson’s husband was posted to France, Cranfield University approved her request to work remotely. She had already been using Skype to supervise students and now has online meetings with her team. Edith said: “The application process encouraged my boss and colleagues to reassess how we work, and I hope the paperwork I submitted will be useful if other employees apply to work from home.”
Flexible working is still seen as “a dirty word and an employee perk”, according to the social media training organisation Digital Mums. Its 2017 survey revealed 30 per cent of UK employees were not confident enough to ask for flexible working, 51 per cent believed that a request would be viewed negatively by their employer and 42 per cent thought it would have a negative impact on their career.
A modern approach
Laura Lewin has also encountered the fear of asking. She said: “People can be terrified about approaching their line manager about flexible working or worried about what their colleagues might think of them.”
One spouse said of their experience of shared parental leave: “His return to work with the Army was disappointingly in line with an outdated mentality.
“Banter was expected, but comments from people senior to him about having a three-month jolly made it clear that many still consider childcare to be a role for wives and partners.
“That judgement could easily turn another family off from taking this type of opportunity. As the military looks to make this culture change, leaders must think about the impact of their words.”
It remains to be seen what effect the Armed Forces Flexible Working Bill will have on recruitment and retention, but it is a step in the right direction for Army families. Jonathan Swan, from Working Families, said: “When parents can’t find the flexibility they need, employers lose out on their skills and experience.
“It is really important to ensure a work-life balance is a realistic option for all employees and one that doesn’t carry a penalty.”