Employee engagement

Pick your working pattern, says PwC

PWC launches new system that allows potential recruits to choose what working pattern they prefer

Britain’s major consultancy groups have been banging on for years about the need for employers to embrace flexible working models. Now PricewaterhouseCoopers, the big four accountancy and consultancy group with 223,000 staff across firms in 157 countries, is leading from the front with a comprehensive scheme for its 30,000 British workers.

P’oopers, as it is called by some City commentators, already has a flexible working policy allowing employees some leeway in where and how they deliver their hours and a ‘Back to Business’ initiative giving six-month paid internships to senior professionals restarting their careers following extended breaks.

However, it has now announced the Flexible Talent Network – a new recruitment route aiming to attract staff unwilling to be tied to traditional working arrangements. Employees will be able to choose a working pattern that works for them – whether it is shorter hours or even only working for a few months a year.

Under the new system, potential employees apply to the network, based on the skills they have and the working pattern that works best for them. PwC says it will then match people in the network with relevant projects, with contracts worked out mutually in advance, stipulating the number of days that will suit their lifestyle while still qualifying them for holiday and sick pay, pension, and annual bonus.

It sounds like a licence for a boondoggle lifestyle of emailing in from a hammock in the Bahamas with a vague sketch of a few work ideas. Yet PwC insists that the new network was born for the completely opposite reason. It seems that accountancy and other traditional white-collar firms are finding it difficult to compete with the glitz of the tech sector and the lure of entrepreneurial self-employment to recruit the type of employees they really crave.

There are a lot of other people  who think we work in a traditional nine-to-five pattern and would never think of applying to PwC, when actually the truth is that the world has long moved on

Offering different routes in, based on a potential employee’s skills, rather than whether they fit into a rigid formula, companies are hoping to attract diverse talent that might otherwise flock to the likes of Google, Facebook, and Apple.

Laura Hinton, PwC’s chief people officer, says the new network’s genesis stemmed from difficulty in recruiting seasonal auditing staff for the months before the Spring and Autumn corporate reporting seasons. The consultancy began talking to former staffers about whether they could return and found that many had needs for flexibility around family, lifestyle, and other work commitments.

PwC decided it could accommodate such requests to procure trusted people that it knew would meet its requirements. The consultancy then wondered whether such a scheme would work for its entire workforce. Hinton explains: ‘We have more than 1,000 live vacancies now and the UK is close to full employment. So, it is an ever-increasing challenge to make sure we have a flow of people with not only the right skills, but also the right behaviour values and culture. I think we miss out on talent because people make assumptions about PwC and what it’s like to work here.

‘We had anecdotal feedback that, once people had joined us, they were really surprised about how flexible we were because they had wanted to work to a different pattern but hadn’t asked because they thought that wasn’t what we did at PwC.

‘There must be a lot of other people out there who think we work in a traditional nine-to-five pattern and would never think of applying to PwC, when actually the truth is that the world has long moved on.’

Hinton admits that recruitment of technology staff is a particular challenge, since it pits the accountancy and consultancy group in direct competition with US tech giants who have long pioneered a more relaxed, less rules-based way of working.

‘We really need skills in technology and other growth areas where people don’t want to work in traditional working patterns,’ she says. ‘People assume that to work at a big firm they need to follow traditional working patterns. We want to make it clear that this isn’t the case.’

The need for more flexible working models in the UK has long been demonstrated by surveys and academic studies and there is evidence that employers are responding. A recent poll of 4,000 people carried out by YouGov on behalf of restaurant chain McDonald’s found that just six per cent were working 9am-5pm shifts, while only 14 per cent would opt for those hours, given a choice.

A similar study conducted by YouGov last year found 66 per cent of working Britons surveyed saying they would prefer their eight-hour working day to start and finish earlier. And just under half said they would prefer to work a longer day in return for a shorter working week.

Meanwhile, a study of 229 organisations employing 246,000 people by online human resources adviser XpertHR found that more the half of the employers polled had received an increasing number of worker requests for flexible hours over the previous two years. Some of this demand is attributed to changes in UK working rights laws, which now stipulate that employers must have a sound business reason for rejecting any request for flexible working from an employee after they have been at the organisation for at least 26 weeks.

PwC’s own research among 2,000 UK adults found 46 per cent stating that flexible working and a culture of good work-life balance are the most important factors when choosing a job. The group believes that, as well as providing a route back into the firm for people looking to restart their careers, the new network will help it compete for talented millennials and others who want to choose exactly how they want to work. The same is also increasingly true for PwC’s customers, says Hinton, noting that many audit or consulting clients no longer want a small army of accountants or advisers turning up at their offices every day.

She also insists that, if it helps the firm to recruit the people it wants, PwC really doesn’t mind whether they want to work a particular way because of caring commitments, other business or entrepreneurial ventures or a wish to have a portfolio or plural lifestyle.

‘Offering flexibility in how people work throughout the year is not only good for workers but also for business, the economy and ultimately society,’ she says. ‘We’re likely to see a rise in people transitioning in and out of work throughout their careers and those organisations who responsibly support their people to do this will ultimately gain a competitive advantage.’

The network has received a strong response, with 2,500 people registering in its first two weeks – a figure that Hinton was surprised to reach so quickly. It is not evident how many of the applicants were women or parents, with PwC explicitly deciding to ask only about skills, rather than personal circumstances.

However, PwC says the volume of registrations underlines the scale of the need identified. It expects the network to apply globally, though Hinton has responsibility only for the UK. One obvious issue may be the limits of the new rules, how much laxity will be allowed and how little staff must work before they are deemed to be taking the new scheme for a ride.

‘The reality is that we’re experimenting and don’t have all the answers to that at the moment,’ demurs Hinton, ‘but we are absolutely committed to making this work. I’m not sure that anything is ruled out. We’re completely open-minded and those 2,500 people who have registered that they want to work in a different way come in all shapes and sizes in regard to working patterns.

‘Some people just want to work weekends. Others want to work through the night. People want to work one day a week, one week a month and one month a year and any variation of hours within a working day. We have definitely tapped into a need out there from people who want to work in radically different ways.’

As to how PwC will cope with the potential administrative and scheduling nightmare of finding individual hours for thousands of its staff, it is looking to technology for the answer, using software to help pair employees with others with similar skills who can work in consecutive or matching time slots or even share jobs.

Hinton admits, however, that the new network will have to manage the expectations of some workers who are unlikely to be allowed to work as flexibly as they would like. ‘There will be an expectation management component to the network,’ she says, with opportunities unlikely to be found for everybody who registers saying they want to work in a particular way.

Offering flexibility in how people work throughout the year is not only good for workers but also for business, the economy and ultimately society

‘Some will not be appropriately skilled or of the right quality, just as happens in the more traditional recruitment process. We’re not saying that just anybody can come in here and work whenever they want. There are some parameters around quality, experience and qualifications.

‘And, while we are saying that we can accommodate all different types of working patterns, we do need to understand what that working pattern is. It can’t be that you fancy working 14 hours today, but you won’t bother tomorrow and then you might work at the weekend.

‘We need predictability at an operational level just so that we can manage it and schedule it. But I hope it is one of those things that one firm starts and everyone else will follow.’ That remains to be seen, though flexible talent networks are unlikely to remain the preserve of accountancy and consultancy groups.

In the very different world of fast-food chains, for example, McDonald’s is working with flexible working campaigner Anna Whitehouse, who believes that a ‘fundamental shift’ has to take place in the fabric of the working world.

Alastair Banks, founder of Optix Solutions, a digital marketing and advertising agency based in Exeter, recognises the need for flexibility to attract staff, particularly outside London.

‘When I started the business in 2000, flexible working meant changing your work hours so you could pick up the kids from school,’ he says. ‘These days you could be working from a beach in Thailand and still fulfilling your commitments. The South-West area really suffers when it comes to retaining talent. Many are drawn to the bright lights of the big cities so we work hard to provide packages that will keep our staff engaged and happy.’

Optix’s flexibility even extends to allowing one employee to bring Spud, his French bulldog, to work. ‘The feedback from our staff is that it means we trust them, and they appreciate it,’ comments Banks. ‘It all helps develop the culture we want and keep it at the company.’ P’oopers, meanwhile, will be hoping that its new scheme does not turn into a dog’s breakfast of wants and needs that can’t be accommodated even within its sizeable doors. The results of its experiment will be watched very closely.