Come Friday lunchtime, the majority of employees in several of Oxford Instruments’ offices are shutting down their computers and heading for the door. Company folklore says that the four-and-a half-day week, which operates in a number of sites, came about after a staff vote about 20 years ago. “They had the choice of working shorter hours over five days or longer hours over four and a half days,” says Claire.
On top of that the company has a ‘core hours’ policy that operates site by site and allows people to start and leave early or late, as long as they are present for the 5-6 core hours agreed for that site. “Some people work 7:00 to 3:30 by agreement with their manager. It’s very popular for people who have caring responsibilities,” says Claire.
Building a career and not just a job
Apart from flexible working patterns, Oxford Instruments also has part time employees. It has been keen to make it possible for staff to build a career working part time and “not just to have a job,” as Claire puts it.
Until very recently two of the company’s nine management board members worked part time – Claire herself and former Operations Director Andrew Matthews, who worked a four-day week in order to achieve a better work-life balance.
“Over the last couple of years we’ve been training managers about diversity and how it helps make better decisions. If you want to feed the talent pool, you have to recognise that people have different needs,” says Claire.
Easier recruitment and happier people
Recruiting the best talent is a big business challenge for Oxford Instruments. It employs 2,500 people worldwide, predominantly in the UK, Germany, US, China, Japan and Finland.
“Sometimes flexible working does make the difference to people choosing us,” says Claire. “We also recruit part time, because we know we can make it work and that helps us attract high calibre, skilled people.”
Recruiting part-timers also makes it easier to create new posts. “Because we’re medium-sized, not big, sometimes it can help the smaller sites to afford roles they couldn’t afford full-time,” says Claire. And when the company is responsive to people’s individual needs, it helps build commitment. “Time and again, I’ve seen people go the extra mile,” she says.
Horses for courses
The way flexibility works at Oxford Instruments varies across countries, sites and roles. The international nature of the business, and its need to operate across time zones, means that work and home life do tend to merge for some people in international roles. This means that Oxford Instruments needs to be more relaxed about when those people work, says Claire – and sometimes it has to watch out that they don’t work too long.
There are differences between cultures when it comes to flexible or part time working. Generally, explains Claire, flexible hours are very popular in the UK and Finland, but less so in Japan.
Indeed, in Japan Oxford Instruments has demonstrated its desire for employees not to over-work, by introducing an early home policy once a week. “We had a bit of an issue with a long hours culture and did some work to see what we could do. So now every Wednesday we lock the office at 6pm so as to create a different routine,” says Claire.
Part time is more accepted
Working part time has definitely become more accepted at Oxford Instruments in recent years. Claire herself was recruited part time as HR Director for a business unit and was promoted to the group HR role and the management board 18 months later, still as a part-timer.
“It has definitely become more acceptable,” she says. “It’s not anything anyone would raise an eyebrow about.”