Flexible working in the
School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences (SMPCS)
Welcome to the School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences (SMPCS) flexible working web pages, which have been prepared with contributions from staff at all levels across the School, ably coordinated by Professor Ellie Highwood and (until recently) Marguerite Gascoine. These pages explain why, as a University and across the School, we are enthusiasts for flexible working and keen to consider flexible working requests. It also links to helpful advice, slanted to our School, to help our thinking in decisions around flexible working. Finally, it includes very interesting examples of staff working, very effectively, in flexible and part-time modes across the School, as PhD students, Postdocs, Administrators, Lecturers, and Heads of Department.
We hope you find the variety of practice across the School interesting - indeed inspiring - and that the practical advice and examples are helpful in your own thinking about flexible working arrangements.
Professor Ben Cosh, Head of SMPCS
The University offers the possibility of working flexibly to all its staff. The HR website gives further information on flexible working as well as the Employee Health and Wellbeing policy with information on the different options for flexible work, as well as leave and absence and how this might be managed. The purpose of this School website is to give real examples of these different practices and make suggestions for line managers of flexible workers.
Many people worry that flexible working is not accepted by others, such as team members or line managers. However, if the work arrangements are discussed and agreed openly with all concerned, setting out objectives, working arrangements at home and availability, there is no reason that this cannot work satisfactorily. Working flexibly offers to all staff the possibility of improving their working environment, balancing the demands of work and home life, and helps us to retain talented people. Many organisations have reported on the positive benefits of having a flexible workforce in terms of job satisfaction, loyalty and motivation. There is sometimes a reluctance to advertise flexible working as shown in the quotations from staff below:
“I think the fewer people there are visibly doing part-time, the harder it is to do because you perceive that you will be viewed as less of a contributor.”
“Working flexibly was a big decision because I thought initially people might look at me funnily or whatever if I was leaving at a particular time - but it didn’t happen.”
The case studies from this website were gathered from the result of a School wide survey on Flexible working practices. We hope that this demonstrates the dedication and creativity with which people balance their work and home lives.
Examples of differing patterns of flexible working across the School
Working part-time (e.g. 4 days per week or shortened hours each day for a fixed period) as an academic, Head of Department, Dean, or as Professional & Managerial staff
Prof Ellie Highwood, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Professor of Climate Physics, and a Head of Department of Meteorology 2012-2015
“I have worked 0.8 FTE since returning from maternity leave in 2008. Whilst my sons were in nursery, I worked 4 days a week, and it worked really well, giving me time to spend with them, or even occasionally by myself, and space to develop the necessary resilience for being a parent and an academic. Since the boys started school, I have worked 0.8 FTE split over three 9-3 days and two 9-5 days. It has been hugely beneficial to our family that I can drop the boys at school every morning, and pick up three days per week, my husband doing the other two days. It works slightly less better this way as I seem to spend more time in meetings - being just not there one day a week was easier. Since taking on the role of Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, I have upped my hours to 30 hours per week, as I was starting to struggle to give enough time to research management.
I had expected part-time to be challenging ... I hadn’t expected it to make me famous/notorious! From the start, I have managed expectations by having an email signature that says my working hours and that I don’t read email outside them. This is now what I am known for across campus, but it is a totally necessary part of being part-time. I keep track of my hours and although I may work more than the 0.8 FTE, everyone who is 1.0 FTE works more than that and I don’t believe I am any different. I do keep an eye on hour many hours over I am, despite the fact that we don’t have hours in our contracts. One year I worked 10 days unpaid, it’s usually around 3 or so now.
One thing I am particularly pleased about is that I have been able to take on leadership roles as Head of Department and now Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. The culture within MPS of sharing roles allowed this to happen, and influenced the University in advertising the Dean role with a job share possibility. Without this, I would not have applied.”
Dr Jochen Broecker, Associate Professor and MRes Co-Director of Studies for the Centre for Doctoral Training, Mathematics of Planet Earth
“We arrived in the UK in 2012 and by now have two children, 4 and 1 year old. I went down to 0.4 FTE in summer 2015 when my wife started a new job but we felt that our little daughter was still too young for nursery. It was, on the other hand, absolutely vital for my wife to go back to work at this point - she is a doctor, and although the UK needs doctors, coming from abroad with a different CV makes it very hard to get into this business, so we did not want to miss this chance. The support I received from colleagues and line managers was fantastic (including colleagues from another institution as we run a joint doctoral training programme.) It does mean that other people have to work more so it is vital that this is appreciated at the wider institution. If we want to achieve truly equal opportunities for both genders, we need this culture of flexible working (among other things) for men too in order that they can support their partners.”
Dr Jon Blower, Director of Science, Institute for Environmental Analytics, and Technical Director Reading eScience Centre
“I have two young children and wanted to share childcare duties with my wife and spend more time at home with them. I greatly appreciated the ability to take them to school/childminder in the morning, which meant I arrived at work late, but also generally I left late or worked into the evening. I then switched to working 4 days a week (taking Fridays off), which meant I had a valued opportunity to look after my younger child for the whole day. I had previously experimented with trying to work full-time hours in 4 days (by working late four days a week) but I quickly found this put a lot of pressure on these long days and so it worked better for me to take a full day off, during which time my colleagues knew that I was usually not contactable. Both management and my colleagues have been very supportive of my decisions, which I greatly appreciate. Flexible working is a very large bonus to working in this environment.”
Dr Hannah Prior, Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Institute of Environmental Analytics (previously Head of Business Development within SMPS)
“I was Head of Business Development for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (as it was at that time), a professional management role. I am also the mother of two young boys and I have been working flexibly since my eldest went to school nearly 4 years ago.
When my kids started at school it became clear that I wanted to able to pick them up every day and attend school events such as Christmas plays and Sports Days. This meant that working long hours in an office full time was a non-starter.
Working for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences enabled me to spend time with my kids whilst continuing to work in a challenging and rewarding senior role. I have worked a mixture of 60% to 100% depending on the requirements of the job, but mostly worked the equivalent of 4 days a week split between the office and home. I have even been able to undertake a valuable secondment in the space sector allowing me to continue to develop my skill set and network.
Many working mums I know face a constant battle between the demands of their jobs and the needs of their children. Whilst working flexibly is not completely stress-free, as those who see me running out the door at 3 p.m. will confirm, it has been made much easier to obtain the work-life balance that I sought four years ago. I know that I have been incredibly lucky to work for a School committed to retaining and nurturing talent. Critically managers appreciate that not every role has to fit the standard 8 hours a day, 5 days a week model. In return I am very happy to work long hours when required to get the job done.”
Dr Danica Vucadinovic Greetham, Lecturer in Mathematics
“I worked 80%, so 4 days a week, while my children were in pre-school for two years and started to work full-time when they started school. I still work from home normally on Wednesdays but if there is something important, then I come in. I feel quite lucky that my line managers through the years have understood and supported my working habits; a lot of meetings with external companies are always scheduled when I'm in."
Working flexibly as a postdoc on a research contract
Dr Dan Hodson, Post-doc in the Department of Meteorology
“I currently work 80% - I used to work 70% - but we shifted this as my partner's work pattern shifted. I've been working part-time for about six years, since our first son was about one, I think, and it's been a formal arrangement since then. Initially, this was to spend a whole day with our children, but now I tend to work shorter days to fit around school - although I still do manage a few hours a week taking our 2 year old to toddler activities.
I sometimes work from home if the situation warrants it and the IT side seems to work well for this and for me!
The flexibility of this work arrangement works very well for us as a family, allowing us to spend time together as a family and to respond to unexpected illnesses and other demands.
I find I do need to monitor my work time quite closely to keep to 80%, but in recent years I have found a phone app that allows me to do this quite easily."
Dr Natalie Harvey, Post-doc in the Department of Meteorology
“I have recently returned from 11 months maternity leave and I am currently using my holiday accrued during that time to work 4 days a week to fit in with my childcare commitments. Once I have used all of this leave I have arranged to formally work 4 days a week until the end of my contract. Before officially returning to work I used my Keeping in Touch (KIT) days to complete a number of specific tasks related to my project. This made my ‘proper’ return to work much less daunting. I also found regular updates from colleagues and friends about departmental news and events made me feel far less removed from the Department.”
Dr Gerrit Holl, Post-doc in the Department of Meteorology
“Many people in academia are familiar with the two body problem. Due to the high degree of specialisation in academia, it can be very difficult for a couple to find positions at the same or nearby universities or research labs. My wife and I met when we were both PhD students in Kiruna, Sweden. She's in space science, I'm in atmospheric science. When she finished her PhD (and there was no opportunity for her to stay where we were), we were faced with a difficult choice: stay together with one of us unemployed, or living far apart, working in different places. The first alternative is harmful to the academic career, potentially very damaging if it continues for years. The second alternative is not optimal either.
We have chosen the second alternative. For our first postdoc, she was in Iowa and I was in Toronto. For our second postdoc, she is now at the University of Lancaster, and I am here in Reading. We are four hours apart by train, so a daily commute is not feasible. Instead, both of us work remotely on average two days a fortnight, so we are together four days per week. We can do this because our work is fully computer-based and does not currently involve teaching or supervision.
It does come at a cost: a lot of travelling back and forth, and despite all the technologies of our age, remote communication with colleagues is never as good as face to face contact. But in our circumstances, we are fortunate that such a flexible work schedule is possible at all.”
Working part-time as a PhD student
Clare Smith, Part-time PhD student in the Department of Meteorology
“I am a female mature student with two adult children studying for a PhD in the Department of Meteorology. I am working part-time at four days per week and flexibly which allows me to manage my other responsibilities around my studies. I also work from home when it is practical.
The atmosphere in the department is very different from the days of my first job as an engineer back in the 1980s. Then I was initially the only female in my department and was expected to make the coffee. There was a large amount of banter aimed at women which although it was meant to be funny contributed to a lack of self-confidence amongst the women in the department. If you objected you were criticised for not being able to take a joke. There was also more blatant discrimination, at one point the department head was recruiting a new supervisor and two technicians and constantly referred to the supervisor as "he" and the technicians as "she" before they'd even advertised the post although discrimination was illegal by this time. In those days once I was married I wasn't even allowed to have the utility bills in my name!
When I had my children in the 1990s (I was now working for a different firm) my husband and I both worked part-time once my maternity leave was over. We each had one day at home with the children and they went to nursery three days per week, one of us would drop them off in the morning and go in to work late and work later in the evening, the other would go in early and pick the children up after nursery. Working this way we each managed a 30 hour week and the children only had three relatively short days in nursery.
It was very unusual in those days for the father to work part-time but I am pleased to see that within the department there is much more shared parental responsibility these days. It is so rewarding for both partners and much fairer.
The atmosphere within the Meteorology department here at Reading is so different to that of my first job. There is no sign of the "them and us" mentality that I have experienced in the past. Even one of the last bastions has been breached and there are some males in charge of one of the coffee clubs!”
Mohammad Al Azah, PhD student in the Department of Mathematics & Statistics
“I started my PhD degree as a part-time student to be able to share responsibilities with my wife in taking care of our kids and to maintain my lecturing job in the United Arab Emirates to fund myself. Three years ago we had a (very) premature baby and without being a part-time student it was nearly impossible to get through that difficult experience; indeed I used the flexibility to take a significant break from my studies at that point for most of a year. I am now in my final year of my PhD, in this last year as a full-time student based in Swindon with my wife and our four children. Studying full-time in this last year I still enjoy a level of flexibility that enables me to spend time with my family and to work as a part-time lecturer for A-level students at a college in Swindon.”
Working full-time with shifted hours to fit in with school pick-up times
Dr Andrew Charlton-Perez, Associate Professor and MSc Programme Director
“My son is an August baby and when he started school my wife and I wanted to make sure that one of us was able to pick him up at the end of each day. It was extremely simple to put in place flexible working arrangements with both our employers and we both work half of our time 7-3 and the other half of our time 9:30-5:30 so that one of us can do school and nursery drop-offs and one pick-ups. It’s really fantastic to be able to pick up my son from school, talk about his day and help him learn to read, which I think would have been more difficult if I wasn’t working flexibly. Sometimes there can be some complications if either of us have to travel for work, but we have always been able to make up time by working some longer days or at home in the evenings (although we both try to avoid this if possible). One thing that makes working flexibly feasible is the use of on-line calendars that allow my colleagues and group members to see when I’m due in the office.”
Dr Bob Plant, Associate Professor and School Director of Teaching and Learning from 2011-2015
“Being able to work flexibly is important for both of us, if neither of us had any flexibility then it just wouldn't have worked, one of us would have been doing something different now. So, instead of 9 to 5, I'm nominally, 7 to 3; in practice, if I'm not here at 7, I might find an hour or so to do in the evening to make it up. There's no problem in the immediate group at all, because the people I work with day to day are typically quite flexible so there's not an issue with that really.”
Working up hours during term time and taking “Time off in lieu ” (TOIL) during holidays
Mrs Dawn Turner, Executive Assistant and External Affairs Coordinator in Meteorology
“I guess I have an informal flexible working arrangement in that I work extra hours during busy periods but keep a record of this to take as TOIL during quieter times for example I took every Friday off during August one year, which was lovely! It's not perfect as I tend to amass more time than I am then able to take, but it is very nice to have the ability to take a few extra days off when it is quiet or even just a few hours here and there when my elderly neighbour needs help getting to the doctor or the hospital for tests.”
Job sharing, working from home and using Time off in Lieu (TOIL)
Chantal Murfitt, formerly Executive Assistant to the Head of School (Job share)
“In January 2009, I gave birth to twin boys, having previously worked in HR and more recently Higher Education. My world certainly changed after that and it was important for me to spend quality time with my children and something I wanted to do.
Fast forward the clock five years and I found myself keen to return to work but also apprehensive and worried about how I would re-enter after such a long gap. I knew it was not just a case of whether I could get back to work, but whether I could find a flexible role that was both sufficiently interesting and paid enough to make it worthwhile. I felt unsure and confused, considering my options and agonising about which path to take. I knew returning to work would be difficult but nothing prepared me for the level of discrimination which unfortunately exists (many Employers pretend to be open minded to women returners but are not)! When I saw the role of 'Executive Assistant' to Head of School advertised at the University, as a job share I could hardly contain my excitement. The job and hours (which enabled me to take and pick up my children from school) were perfect, especially as my husband frequently travels abroad in his job so I cannot rely on him to share the childcare. It soon became apparent that the University really recognise the skills and experience of women who have taken a career break and the benefits they can bring to an organisation, such as maturity, motivation and a different perspective.
Having successfully secured the role, one of my concerns was the school holidays. The University was able to give me a laptop so I could work from home, one day per week, during their holidays. Not only has this helped considerably to relieve the stress and worry but also has saved me a small fortune on childcare costs! In addition, during term time, I can accrue extra hours as TOIL which I have used towards their school holidays.
I wish all organisations were as open to flexible working as this one. Whilst it was not easy returning to work after such a long absence I'm glad my persistence paid off! I really have found a supportive work culture, together with a great team of people to work with. ”