EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Telecommunications Company, United Kingdom: Flexible working practices


Case study name: 
Ageing workforce
Organisation Size: 
Information technologyPost and telecommunications
Target Groups: 
Initiative Types: 
Flexible working practices


Organisational background


Telecommunications Company (TC) is a leading multinational communications company operating in Europe, the Americas and the Asia–Pacific region. Its areas of expertise include networked information technology (IT) services, as well as local, national and international telecommunications services.

As of March 2005, TC employed 102,100 people worldwide, 22.7% of whom were women, with 90% of all staff located in the UK. The company has downsized its workforce over the last 15 years, from over 245,000 employees in 1990. The most radical cuts took place in the first five years of this period, as staff numbers were reduced to 137,500 by 1995. In all, 9.4% of staff are aged under 30 years, 65.4% are aged 30–49 years, and 25.1% are aged 50–59 years. Until recently, it has been standard company practice to allow staff to draw their company pensions – subject to the payment of a qualifying level of contributions – at the age of 60 years, as this has been the normal retirement age for TC employees.

The company has designated a senior manager to deal with equality and diversity issues, including ageism. This manager will ensure that initiatives concerning age diversity issues are put into practice.

The company recognises two trade unions: the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) and Connect, the union for professionals in communications.

In addition, TC has set up a European Consultative Works Council, which meets every six months. These meetings provide an opportunity for transnational dialogue and exchange of views between management and employee representatives in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe.

The original initiative

The company’s flexible retirement policy aimed to give employees greater choice regarding the nature and timing of their retirement. It encouraged employees to prepare for their futures, and to consider broader aspirations for life, including career choices.

In all, five options were available to staff that allowed them to gradually reduce their work levels:

  • ‘wind down’: this provided the opportunity to work part time or to job-share;
  • ‘step down’: this involved taking up a position with less responsibility;
  • ‘time out’: this enabled employees to take full-time or part-time sabbaticals;
  • ‘helping hands’: this encouraged employees to pursue charity or community work;
  • ‘ease down’: This allowed employees to gradually reduce working hours and/or responsibilities, particularly in the 12 months prior to leaving the company.

The human resource (HR) manager responsible for the policy spent about a year developing the programme, which involved up to six months of detailed and focused work prior to implementation, and a two-month roll-out period.

The trade unions participated in the policy development, and implementation was carried out locally through the HR business managers.

The company has not yet analysed and evaluated the outcome of the initiative. The objective of the programme was to reduce the level of bureaucracy within the company. Although it was not possible to gain a quantitative perspective on the programme, it was suggested that the take-up among employees was not as strong as had been expected. It was thought that broader social initiatives had discouraged employees from exploring flexible retirement options, rather than there being any problem with the company schemes. The flexible retirement policy has assisted the company in meeting objectives set out in its broader age-diversity agenda, as it noted an increase in the number of employees aged over 50 years, from 13% in 2001 to over 25% today. The organisation has not experienced any negative effects since introducing the policy.

Good practice today

The company has not introduced any major new initiatives on flexible retirement since 2001. Its HR management practices, however, are constantly under review, and continue to be developed to meet the requirements of its age-diversity agenda. A total of three HR actions are worthy of note in this context: age profiling; the age audit; and the general employee survey, ‘Communications and attitude research for employees’:

  • The company carries out age profiling within the organisation, and makes positive use of the data collected in recruitment procedures and training programmes. It also monitors the relationship between the customer and the company.
  • The age audits identify further issues that the company should address. The most recent audit was in 2004. The company aims to update policies and practices in which there might be indirect or inadvertent discriminatory elements. A full age audit, using the audit tool of the Employers Forum on Age (EFA), was conducted in order to eliminate any possibility for age discrimination from all company policies and practices.
  • Staff surveys are also carried out by the company to get employee views on the retirement policies in place, the new anti-discrimination legislation, changing demographics, and the changing needs of people and the business.

TC conducts a number of formal employee surveys. The most important is the group-wide annual ‘Communications and attitude research for employees’ (CARE) survey. Every employee is given the opportunity to complete a CARE survey during the working day. The key indicator in the CARE survey is the ‘Employee engagement index’. This indicates the overall commitment and motivation levels among employees with regard to their jobs, colleagues and customers. Examples of the kind of issues covered in the index include team working, senior management and communication, rewards, and work–life balance. All managers with teams of eight or more workers receive individual CARE feedback reports, and are encouraged to work with their teams to analyse the CARE feedback and to draw up action plans.

The company is currently awaiting the publication of the draft regulations that will become part of the age discrimination legislation this year. At the same time, it is examining its own policies to ensure that it has anticipated the demands of the legislation.

However, the company’s HR policies, including its approach to diversity – according to a HR manager – are not driven by legislative requirements. The manager stated that TC wants to be a leading company, with HR policies in place ahead of public policy requirements. Commercial factors will play a greater role in driving forward company policy than will the demands of legislation. The legislation will be adhered to within TC, but business needs will ensure that the company continues to enhance and follow its diversity agenda.


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