Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Winner 2015, The Santander Best New Flexible Working Initiative Award

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has implemented an ambitious initiative to enable people to take significant leave when needed and return to work against a background of austerity and the challenge of overseas working. The FCO’s Special Unpaid Lead (SUPL) offer is unique, allowing employees breaks from the office for up to five years while moving for a partner’s role, or undertaking study, and up to 10 years for childcare, with employment held open. The FCO also offers a career break option that enables an employee to come back, after several years, and bid for roles. Given the FCO’s overseas footprint, there are many families in which either one or both parents work overseas, and SUPL gives a flexibility for staff to build ‘lattice’ careers around the various scenarios that arise; for example an employee accompanying his or her FCO spouse on an overseas posting and doing non-FCO work or parenting for a few years.

However, long periods of SUPL do present challenges for returning to the workplace and the FCO has been working to address this. Firstly, the FCO found that people struggled to be successful at interview against colleagues; and secondly, it discovered that there were many who wanted to return to work in a flexible way, but were unable to, due a lack of flexible options for them. So the organisation decided to run a pilot to offer project work to those on SUPL and maternity leave. The FCO sought to identify projects that could be done by people in their own preferred hours, in most instances working from home. Remote working was at this point a fairly radical concept in the FCO, with just a few lone trailblazers. The aim of the pilot was to test the benefits – to both the organisation and staff – of providing an alternative route back to work, other than directly through the challenging and competitive FCO internal and largely full-time jobs market. The FCO hoped that this route would encourage more staff to transition back into work in a smoother way and tap into a highly skilled and under-used pool. The pilot was also designed to provide additional flexible resources that could be used by teams across the FCO to deliver priority areas of work.

At the end of the one-year pilot phase, a full independent evaluation was carried out. Thirteen projects across eight departments were carried out, each on a part-time and remote basis. Projects included the NATO Summit, a review for the Middle East department, WW1 commemorations and a conference. The grade breakdown ranged from junior to senior managers with an average working pattern of 10 days per month. The duration of the project ranged between six weeks and six months.

Staff who participated in the pilot phase were positive about the experience; those who wanted to return to the office said it helped them prepare for applying for roles and gave them recent examples of successful work that they could refer to in interviews. Feedback from host departments was that the pilot provided a steady flow of personnel to busy departments, adding value and targeting people who wanted to come back into the workforce. Pilot candidates stated that the scheme boosted morale, confidence and a sense of connection with the FCO. Of the 40 people on the pilot, three have now returned, one is returning shortly and eight have gone from being uncertain about returning to definitely wanting to return or the pilot has hastened their return. Most felt reconnecting with former colleagues and updating themselves on current FCO practices would make it easier to bid for jobs and make them more confident on return. Most also felt that the goodwill factor generated by the pilot was worthwhile, that the FCO valued returners and was willing to be flexible.

The pilot phase lasted one year (2013–14) and in February 2015 the FCO board agreed that the pilot should be turned into a permanent arrangement. It has already been shared as part of the implementation of the Civil Service Talent Action Plan’s strategy in support of diversity.