Making flexibility work: Abley Transportation Consultants

Ask Steve Abley why his Christchurch engineering firm Abley Transportation Consultants has such robust flexible work practices and he’ll raise his eyebrows in surprise.

“I don’t think we’re doing anything special,” admits the founder/MD. “Don’t all employers provide flexible working arrangements for their staff?”

In March, the Government introduced legislation that allows every worker, whether male or female, the right to ask their employer for flexible work. It is up to the employer to agree.

However, current figures indicate that only around 28 percent of Kiwi workers have flexible working arrangements in place.

It’s a different story at Abley, where Steve is committed to providing a flexible workplace for his 38 or so staff, who are split over two offices in Christchurch and one in Auckland.

“We’ve never set out to be a flexible employer, but what we have set out to be is a good employer,” says Steve, who started the business, along with its sister company, Interpret Geospatial Solutions, in 2003.

“We hire great people and part of the reason they want to work for us is that is we care about accommodating their changing needs and respect their desire to balance their work and home lives.”

Unusually for an engineering/engineering-related business, more than 55 percent of Steve’s employees are women. Again, it’s not a deliberate strategy but Steve, who is himself the father of three girls (aged 3, 5 and 7), admits he will “go out of his way” for employees who are mothers.

“Being a mum is hard enough but to have an employer who is inflexible, well that’s just heaping pain upon pain. It’s also in my interest for my young daughters to see that their dad employs good people who are able to be the best they can be and that a large proportion just happen to be women.”

Steve says his fellow directors, and all his senior staff, are parents of young children so understand the need to accommodate families.

“And that goes for both men and women. Some men want to play a more active role in raising their children, so they might want to work part-time too.”

He admits there isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy, but rather a conversation with individual employees.

“One staff member works from 9am to 3pm each day so she can do the school drop-off and pick-ups. Another isn’t in the office Thursday and one wants to have Fridays off so we accommodate that.”

It’s a strategy that’s clearly paying off: not only does the company attract a range of great staff, retention rates are also high.

“We’re way below the average churn rate of 15% and almost every woman who has taken maternity leave has returned to the company, usually in a part-time role. A lot of our younger staff who go overseas for their OEs also come back to work for us.”  

It’s a strategy that’s also delivering on the work front. At the recent NZ Spatial Excellence Awards, Steve’s team was involved in six of the nine awards.

“It’s about creating an environment that lets people do their best work.”  

Of course, flexibility is a two-way street and in return for a work schedule that better accommodates work/life balance, Steve says employees also need to be flexible.

“It’s quid-pro-quo so if, for example, there are times when you might have to take a call in the evening or do something on your day off, then that’s what we expect you to do. It’s all about respecting the arrangement and not taking the mickey.”

It also means that Steve gets to “work with all these people who have smiles on their faces”.

“I think a good employer fosters good employees. We have a bit of a reputation as a great place to work – we’ve got good people, a flexible approach and we do interesting work. I was given a great opportunity when I was just starting out as a 17-year-old and now I’m try to do the same for others.”

Tracy Fleming is one staff member reaping the rewards of a flexible workplace. The senior transportation engineer has worked at Abley for 18 months but says she found out she was pregnant with her son Alex days after she was offered the job.

“I told Steve I’d understand if he wanted to withdraw the job offer but he said no, that we’d make it work.”

And so they have, with Tracy working for six months before having her son Alex (now 18 months). She then took a year’s maternity leave and now works three days a week.

“Many of the staff here have kids so they understand that there are some days when kids are sick so you might have to work from home or rearrange things. Of course, sometimes it’s still a juggle but flexible work allows me to use my brain but also be an active parent to Alex. I have the best of both worlds, really…”