It's too good to miss

Productivity and job satisfaction have improved among female staff at the Co-op Bank, thanks to a scheme to raise the profile of women in business.
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The Independent Culture
When Kirsty Milne was offered the chance to work from home she leapt at it. "I thought it sounded wonderful," she says.

Teleworking - using telecommunications technology to work in a home office - has not taken off at the levels many have predicted, largely, it is thought, because of mixed feelings among participants about the isolation associated with it. But Ms Milne, who works in the collections, or bad debts, department of the Co-operative Bank, is if anything more enthusiastic now than she was before. "I absolutely love working from home," she says, adding that it has made her more productive because of the absence of distractions and noise.

She took the opportunity when it was offered to her department nearly three years ago, not for the usual reason of helping handle child care, but because she wanted to stop commuting. She was travelling to the bank's Manchester headquarters from her home in Leek, Staffordshire - a distance of 35 miles that took her about an hour in the morning and an hour and a half in the evenings.

It is not just Ms Milne who is happy about the arrangement. The bank says the initiative has enabled it to retain some highly skilled staff, while seeing the productivity of the eight female teleworkers rise by 40 per cent.

It is an achievement that has made the Co-op one of this week's finalists in the third annual awards presented by Opportunity 2000, the organisation dedicated to raising the profile of women in business.

Like other organisations that have gone down this route, the Co-op Bank says it has seen benefits beyond those originally envisaged. It gains through them staying with the organisation, but - because they typically only visit the offices once a month - they are not taking up valuable space.

Another reason that Ms Milne cites for the success of the programme is the care that the bank has taken to equip employees for their new way of working. In addition to supplying all the equipment needed to carry out the job, including computer, fax machine and document shredder, it has arranged for the Health and Safety Executive to inspect the home office, and has subjected interested employees to psychological assessments in an effort to ensure that they are suited to working on their own.

Other shortlisted organisations included BT, the BBC, and London Weekend Television, as well as the Co-op's rival banks, Barclays and NatWest. But in a sign that even companies that are low in profile and involved in traditional industries can make an impact in this way, a Northern Ireland- based automotive parts maker was also among the nominees for awards.

The job-share scheme put in place by European Components two-and-a-half years ago was a response to company concerns about the loss of skilled women employees after maternity and absenteeism rates among women on the factory floor that were higher than those among men. A company survey found that shift patterns were conflicting with the women's family commitments and suggested that more flexibility might reduce absenteeism as well as encourage the return of skilled employees after having children.

According to personnel manager Cathy Taylor, the scheme, introduced in 1995, has contributed to "a remarkable improvement in attendance". The overall absentee rate among the 650 workers is between 3.5 and 4 per cent, but among the 10 women who have so far been job sharers only one has met that level; the rest have near-perfect attendance rates.

Ms Taylor claims that the success of the initiative is largely down to the fact that the employees involved manage it themselves. At the outset it was designed in consultation with the trade unions, but the day-to- day running is down to the women. "They work out cover between themselves," says Ms Taylor, explaining that this means that the company is guaranteed cover for a 38-hour working week, something that is impossible with employees on regular shift patterns. "Mutually, it works very well."

The company does not see this rise in productivity as the only benefit. It has also seen more women returning from maternity leave, while job sharing on evening shifts gives the women the benefit of extra pay while spending less on child care.

In addition, the company believes the scheme has contributed to a rise in the number of women engineers, with one of the three now in place a single parent who - thanks to the success of the scheme - is now working an individual flexible hours contract.

The initiatives at European Components and the Co-operative Bank feature in a booklet on best practice issued by Opportunity 2000 under the title Towards Culture Change. In it, Lady Howe, chairman of Opportunity 2000, stresses that she hopes they will help to demonstrate "the real business case for employing, retaining and developing talented women" in organisations of all types.

With women expected to make up more than half the UK workforce by the year 2000, Lady Howe stresses: "This is an issue that British businesses cannot afford to ignore."