Flexible and family friendly working at the UK’s biggest rail operator

Guest post by Zoey Hudson – Head of Talent, Diversity and Inclusion, Govia Thameslink Railway

Whilst the pandemic brought its challenges, it has also served as an opportunity for employers and employees to reevaluate their priorities. Whether that be having more time to spend as a family or perhaps exercise before work, whatever the newfound opportunities have been, Covid-19 has forced all of us to prioritise what’s most important in life.

For the rail industry, the expected demand for increased flexibility is a real opportunity to change the public perception of the industry. One of the main prohibitors to attracting new recruits is the perception of anti-social working hours and roles which are not flexible[1], but if operators take this on board – as we have at Givia Thameslink Railway (GTR) – we can truly drive the positive impact in the industry that we all want to see. In today’s world, businesses who fail to offer staff flexibility are likely to miss out on the best available talent, with such work perks now more of an expectation than a bonus. The sooner this is realised across the industry, the faster we can progress.

At GTR, we are taking this one step further. We know there is more to flexibility than working hours, especially for our colleagues, both men and women, who are planning to start or expand their families.

Unfortunately, in the UK, two key issues still face new parents; whether their employer will be flexible with their new priorities and whether both men and women will be empowered to take a similar amount of time off to spend with the new or expanded family.

Currently, fewer than one-in-five of all new mothers, and just 29% of first-time mothers, return to full-time work in the first three years after maternity leave, while 17% of women leave employment completely in the five years following childbirth, compared to 4% of men[2]. In comparison, at GTR, 208 women have taken maternity leave since the start of the franchise in 2015 and 74% of them have returned to work and are still in the business.

While encouraging statistics, with the rail industry facing a significant skills shortage over the next 5 to 10 years[3], there needs to be far greater investment in appealing to women to consider a career in the rail industry. The first step in this process, is empowering your staff to put themselves, their families and their dreams, first.

In this article, I discuss what GTR is doing differently to inspire staff to prioritise themselves, whilst sharing my own personal story of adoption and the support I needed to make this process the best decision my husband Trevor and I ever made.

What is GTR doing?

Starting a family is not an easy decision, nor is it a particularly stress-free or quick process, but for many of us, it’s the most important and exciting moment of our lives.

At GTR, we want our people to feel secure in making these choices, but not only that, to have the confidence that their employer will support this decision and do what it can to make the process as enjoyable as possible. What this means at GTR is, giving our colleagues greater control over how they manage their pregnancy or adoption leave.

As an employer, we can guarantee job security over the maternity/paternity period, we can provide a secure salary and we can introduce flexible working, but the most important thing we can offer is piece of mind in an already overwhelming period. This is where our ‘We’re with you’ promise really comes into its own.  

To support employees’ ambitions beyond the workplace, businesses should seek to give their people the tools to be the best version of themselves. When discussing pregnancy and adoption, GTR’s core mission is for staff to have the required confidence to make these hugely important and emotive life choices without worrying about the impact on their career. And this applies for both men and women alike.

At GTR, employees can take up to a year for maternity leave and have the option to share this with their partners.  Those who have worked with us for over a year qualify for Company Maternity Pay (CMP) and are offered full basic pay for 22 weeks, and then Statutory Maternity Pay (SMP) for 17 weeks. Any colleagues who have been with us less than a year are offered CMP for 12 weeks and SMP for the following 27 weeks.

Similarly, for adoption, GTR provides an Adoption Leave and Pay Policy supporting leave up to a year and  offering staff the same payment structures as those taking maternity leave.

My personal experience

For me personally, offering adoption leave and pay has a very close place in my heart, having adopted two beautiful girls in 2016.

There are many reasons why couples consider adopting. For myself and my partner Trevor, we were unable to have children of our own. What’s less spoken about, however, is the huge mental and physical anguish the process takes. In some cases, those considering adoption have been through countless rounds of fertility treatment  and are in effect grieving the loss of a child when that doesn’t work, which of course is an incredibly distressing time.

In 2013, we went through two cycles of IVF, including a break in-between, before deciding to start the adoption process in 2015.

From an employer’s point of view, the adoption process is incredibly time consuming as fertility treatment and adoption can take many years. The demanding situation requires  the employee to be honest and transparent about their personal life with their boss, which again, can be very challenging and not something all staff will have the confidence to do.

Having decided adoption was right for us, we quickly learnt how invasive the process was, analysing the finer details of a couple’s personal life, reviewing medical history, financial statements, personality traits, your relationship with your partner and everything in between. The process is undeniably emotionally and physically draining.

Over the four-year journey from beginning IVF to adopting, I received invaluable support and real understanding of the demands of my new work-life balance from my managers. Without this guidance, support and council, I truly believe the process would have been far less rewarding, or maybe not even possible. However, company support cannot and should not stop once the process, whatever your unique situation, is ‘complete.’

There are lots of challenges to overcome during and after the process and it will differ for each person. For me personally, I struggled to find a balance between work and home life. I had two children who both needed extra support at school and trying to help them through this emotional transition, whilst balancing the demands of work, became very overwhelming. What many employers may not appreciate is that adopted children often need more time with their new parents to settle and are more likely to come with a host of mental, physical and emotional challenges.

The adoption process was also extremely quick for us – one minute I was discussing things in a boardroom and three weeks later we were parents of two children. The pace at which this happened made me feel quite unsettled and nervous initially, however, my bosses adapted quickly and supported me to shift my role to a four-day working week once back in the office. This showed their confidence in me and my abilities to continue in a senior leadership position in a flexible manner. This suited me perfectly as the demands of my personal life had completely changed with increased responsibility and the various pressures of parenthood.

However, through the incredible support at GTR, I felt positive and confident about every step, which has been fantastic. I even have people coming to me now, from around the company, asking for advice as they either consider or begin their own journeys to parenthood.

The biggest single piece of advice I can offer, is to be transparent, honest, and confident in your decision and how you want your work life to be built around this. They will be supportive of you, and you will not regret it.

Zoey Hudson is the Head of Talent, Diversity and Inclusion at GTR. Since 2014, Zoey’s general remit has been focussed on leadership development, talent and succession management. As of July 2019, she has also been working on recruitment and apprenticeships. Zoey is passionate about developing the leadership capability and effectiveness of the workforce, encouraging heightened self-awareness and nurturing potential throughout the organisation to bring about cultural change. 

Govia Thameslink Railway operates Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express services: www.southernrailway.com, www.thameslinkrailway.com, www.gatwickexpress.com, www.greatnorthernrail.com

Photo by Agung Pandit Wiguna from Pexels

[1] NSAR, 2020

[2] Workplace Insight, 2019

[3] NSAR, 2020

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