ENDSjobsearch spoke to four organisations in the environment sector for their insights into flexible working and why it’s key to success.
From seasonal project-based roles to remote working, how is the environment sector managing flexible working and what are the benefits? ENDSjobsearch, the specialist job board for environment and sustainability jobs, spoke to WSP, Argyll Environmental, Thomson Ecology and Anthesis Group, for their views.
How well is the sector embracing flexible working?
“The environment sector is open to flexible working and supportive of employees’ needs, personal commitments and the varying hours often required in the field”, says Afshan Rasheed, environment director at engineering and environmental professional services firm WSP.
However, Rasheed has found that both formal and informal support to work flexibly can hugely differ between companies, with some offering flexible start and finish times or the option to work from home.
She adds: “Within the sector, we are seeing more employers welcoming flexible working options because it helps to attract and retain the best employees, while feeling happier and more productive in their work.”
Jaime Bainbridge, consultancy manager at Argyll Environmental, a Brighton-based environmental consultancy, says her company has embraced flexible working too: “Our staff who have children manage their own hours and all of our consultants have company laptops with Skype, which can securely access servers, so remote working is possible wherever they are.
“This has the added benefit that if for instance we have heavy snow and people have trouble getting to the office, business continuity is ensured.”
Bainbridge thinks that in many cases the sector is having to embrace flexible working “for efficiency’s sake” due to the project nature of the work making flexible working “a necessity”.
Operating in the ecology and environmental sectors, project-based work is a core part of the business at Thomson Ecology, an environmental and ecology consultancy. The company operates a flexible working policy with its permanent staff, as well as its flexible workers.
As Nancy Thomson, CEO, explains: “Our workforce has a diverse mix, so our flexibility meets the needs of many different staff, for varying reasons such as family commitments, study opportunities or simply work life balance. The flexibility we offer means people can generally work the hours they require, between the office and home. In return, we ask that the work gets done on time.”
Anthesis Group, the global sustainability consultancy and solutions provider, offers flexible working to all employees. The organisation says it values the knowledge and expertise of its employees, so finding and recruiting talented individuals isn’t always based on location. As a business that has collaboration between colleagues and clients in different time zones, too, delivering client value doesn’t necessarily require a 9-5 routine either.
As Helen Tyrrell, Anthesis Group’s HR adviser, explains: “While we support flexible working, we also strongly value in-person meetings and face-to-face time amongst colleagues. Where this isn’t possible, though, we make the most of video conferencing technology.”
Why does the sector need flexible workers?
To fulfil project-based or seasonal work: Thomson Ecology’s workforce is around 150-strong and it employs permanent and seasonal staff on a flexible working basis. Thomson says: “The nature of ecology is that several elements are seasonal, such as species survey work. This means we often require large numbers of workers in the spring and summer months to meet client needs”.
"When large projects land, we need ‘all hands on deck”, asserts Bainbridge. “There are instances when overtime is required to make sure all tasks are met. At the same time this allows staff to take some time in lieu to keep the balance and maintain staff’s energy levels.”
To scale the workforce up or down: Thomson Ecology works on a range of projects in sectors including rail and roads, housing development, water management and marine.
“In all cases, there is a requirement to have multiple large teams on client sites at any one time, particularly during our peak months of June to August. Flexibility is key for us as a business, allowing us to scale our workforce up and down as required”, says Thomson.
To boost staff retention rates: “Flexible working increases the retention rates of workers who, for instance, may require maternity or paternity leave, or a full-time role wouldn’t fit their lifestyle”, says Alex McKay, principal consultant at Anthesis.
To complete site visits: “Going out on site to collect data which enables us to build a realistic picture of what the future site may sound or look like, means working unsociable hours becomes more commonplace”, says Rasheed.
“By having the use of flexible working hours, it’s much easier to plan project work and ensure that the job gets done without incurring overtime. Having the trust from my company, WSP, in our 700-strong environment team to work flexibly and responsibly, makes me more dedicated and passionate about what I do”.
What skill-sets are required for flexible roles?
Self-management skills: When you’re working flexibly, whether it’s from home or alternative hours, the chances are you’re going to be spending more time on your own, without your boss in close proximity. With this alone time comes increased responsibility.
Bainbridge advises flexible workers to be “self-led and have the ability to manage tasks from start to completion while accommodating the needs of colleagues and clients who may not be operating within a flexible hours arrangement.”
You also need to manage your time even more effectively. As McKay says: “Flexible working requires effective time management skills and self discipline so work is completed on time and to an appropriate level.”
Communication skills: In a flexible working situation where you’re not in the same location, or you change projects frequently, you need to ensure you keep the lines of communication open and work harder to bond with colleagues when you can.
“Excellent written and verbal communication skills are required”, says Bainbridge. “And trustworthiness also applies”.
McKay adds: Flexible working requires good communication between colleagues so they’re aware of your availability.”
A flexible mindset: Flexibility works both ways, so working in a role where you are given flexibility over when and where you work also requires you to be flexible from time to time.
As Rasheed explains: “Self-motivation, attitude and willingness to respond quickly to project demands are key skills to be able to succeed in a flexible working role. After all, flexibility works both ways and it is sometimes inevitable that with the pressure of project deadlines and client demands that there are times when work is required to be undertaken late in the day but this will balance out.”
“We are looking for people who can demonstrate they have what it takes to work flexibly”, adds Thomson. “And an ability to stay away from home Monday to Friday, working at various locations.”
How are flexible workers reaping the benefits?
Pippa Box, marketing manager at Anthesis, says: “Flexible working hours in my role at Anthesis allows me to manage some personal commitments, in a comfortable manner, before the working day. It requires trust from the employer and responsibility from the employee in terms of managing working hours.”
Peter Scholes, principal consultant at Anthesis, adds: “Flexible working certainly helps me plan my time better, and has given me the opportunity to participate in other things, such as being a charity trustee.”
Top tips for landing and managing a flexible role in the environment/sustainability sector
Rasheed has the following advice:
- Communication and commitment: The way we are seen to be successful in our role is less about where and when the job or project gets done, as long as the work is completed to the expected quality and timescales. To land a flexible role and manage it, enjoy the benefits but always remember that communication and commitment is important.
- Manage your time: With flexible working comes self discipline. Working from home might often mean people work longer hours without breaks, so it is essential that you consider the importance of your well-being and manage your time carefully.
- Be a team player: Although being next to your team every day from 9-5pm is not as common as it once was, being a team player and supporting colleagues is still important to managing a flexible role, even if that does involve working outside of your comfort zone. By supporting your line manager and/or team, you will further build a trusting and respectful relationship which is the foundation of successful flexible working.