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Published: 20 Mar 2024

A big impact in a small business: how SF Recruitment made flexible working work in an SME 

A bold new world 

Flexible working makes a good business case, promising to deliver better engagement, productivity and staff retention. But these benefits can sometimes be seen as the preserve of big corporations, perceived to have the resources needed to make flexible working a success.  

Step forward, SF Recruitment. An organisation of 60% parent staff members, they introduced flexible working during the pandemic when wellbeing was brought into sharp focus. As the nation was thrust into lockdown, many businesses went into survival mode, responding to the shifting sands by setting their sights on coming out the other side in one piece. But SF Recruitment saw a chance for transformative change, an opportunity to realise long-held ambitions for a more autonomous way of working. Having committed to a fully flexible model, the effect was both immediate and seismic. In the first 12 months the workforce grew by 60%, average staff performance doubled sales figures with the average employee earning 29% more than the previous year, and the company saw a 34% boost in income and 96% growth in profit. 

The people behind the numbers 

Whilst these impressive figures are proof that flexible working can not only work for SMEs, but work in their favour, they don’t tell the whole story. The numbers can’t capture the real-life, less tangible, but hugely valuable, impact flexibility has had on the lives of the employees and their families. This ripple effect is described by Peter Kidd, who used to work in a recruitment agency where it was the norm to ‘get in at 8am and leaving before 6pm was forbidden’ but now uses his flexibility to be hands-on with his young children, allowing his partner the time and space to study for her masters.  

Hearing from the multitude of parents that use the flexibility to work around their families’ needs, it’s clear that the benefits go far beyond the ability to manage childcare. They talk about the trust the company has in them, written into contract, which gives them the autonomy to manage their time with the freedom to work their hours in a pattern and location that works best to support their family commitments. From football clubs to ballet classes, employees put a high value on the being able to take an active role in the lives of their children, as Jade Sheldon explains,

I can do the things that I definitely would’ve missed out on had the flexibility not been introduced. My daughter goes to karate twice a week and I love seeing her grow and develop through these activities.

Career opportunities 

So how have they managed to implement this way of working with such evident success? SF Recruitment has made a conscious decision to centre flexibility not just as a way to provide support, but to enable career progression. Taking an individualised approach has enabled parents and carers to work flexibly, without sacrificing their career prospects. As the CEO, Saira Demmer outlined,

Because we recognise individuality, we tailor career paths to the aspirations and strengths of each person. Last year we created five new job titles to accommodate career goals, two of which are part time.

Parents recognise the value in having no pressure to choose between having a thriving career and being present for their children. The knowledge that you can still develop in your career whilst working flexibly means employees are invested in the success of the business.  

Flex as the norm 

SF Recruitment realised from the get-go that success depended upon a top-down approach, whereby senior leaders led by example, making it easy for the rest of the business to follow suit. Measures have been taken to normalise flexibility through the recruitment process. Job adverts make their commitment to being open to talk flexible working clear, as well as details about potential flexibility, and interview panels are briefed to initiate conversations about flexible working. And the modelling of alternative working arrangements by the management team reassures potential candidates of the feasibility of flexible working at the company.  

The pledge to operate a hybrid working model long-term offers prospective candidates the autonomy to work in the best way for them that will support them to build a fulfilling career. It also makes SF Recruitment a desirable employer for people who need to balance work and caring responsibilities and helps attract and retain talent that they may otherwise have missed out on.  

Culture matters 

Experience has taught SF Recruitment that connectedness in a business of this kind matters, and so encourage a mixture of office and home working. Working with the teams, they have found days that that work for everyone to work at the office, helping to maintain a core culture. As Saira Demmer says, ‘#

Balancing personal flexibility with maintaining a strong company culture is a challenge, but we’ve made it a shared responsibility to get this bit right.

Spreading the word 

So successful have SF Recruitment been, that they are determined to share their unique position as recruiters to encourage more employers to consider flexible working, with their Flex for Success initiative. Specifically, they want employers to consider flexibility when designing roles, building their teams and writing job adverts so that working relationships can start off on the foot of honesty and respect for individual needs. As Saira Demmer explains,

We want to use our voice and platform to help change that narrative; to recognise that flexibility starts with a conversation and that dialogue helps to navigate changing demands at different times. In essence, it’s a true partnership working between employer and employee, and it generates a culture of openness and trust.

‘Where’s the catch?’ 

The offering at SF Recruitment seemed so good that it led a new recruit to ask ‘where’s the catch?’. But as every employee can testify, it really is as good a deal as it sounds, and so happily advocate for the flexible working policy. They have found that sharing stories of the successes, which they actively do with blogs and videos, as well as the bumps in the road along the way, instils a confidence to try, and try again. Personal experience, either our own, or others, is a powerful learning tool. And when you hear from people like Ellie Smith, it’s hard to argue against the benefits;

When my daughter turned 3 she got a bike for her birthday, being able to spend the time after we picked her up from nursery and she could practice learning to ride without her stabilisers, that was invaluable, you’re not going to get those precious moments again.