The discussion

“It’s about that inclusion, so that it’s fair for everyone”

OT  asked Urquhart Opticians and Asda Opticians about how their approach to flexible working has changed since the pandemic

A number of rubber bands in primary colours are arranged in a pile on a white surface

When it comes to flexible working for employees, the world has changed since COVID-19 – which might present a problem for optometrists, whose job largely requires them to be in practice performing eye examinations rather than having the flexibility to work elsewhere.

OT asked Pamela Murray, operations manager at Ayrshire’s Urquhart Opticians, a Hakim Group independent group, and Jenny Patrick, head of field operations for optical and pharmacy at Asda Opticians, about their companies’ top priorities when it comes to flexible working, how they achieve them, and how they have adapted over the past three years.

Increased flexibility post-COVID-19

“Clearly if you’re testing eyes [on the High Street], you need to be in a store,” Patrick said, when OT asked whether any unexpected adaptations have needed to be made in recent years: “You don’t have that option for hybrid working.”

Asda Opticians has still needed to adapt its policies in order to ensure “real flexibility around the workplace” despite the need for staff to be working in practice for the vast majority of their time, however.

Black and white image shows a middle aged woman with shoulder length blonde hair smiling at the camera
Jenny Patrick
The changes Asda Opticians has implemented have come as a result of colleagues’ direct requests, Patrick explained.

“We have seen, like everybody else, that our professionals have decided to work slightly differently post COVID-19,” she said. “That means, for a lot of individuals, working fewer hours.”

Contracted hours, both for optical managers and optometrists, have reduced by an average of six hours a week, Patrick revealed.

She added: “People have taken that decision to drop those hours that they’re committed to work on a regular basis. They may well be picking up locum shifts, which gives them flexibility and the best of both worlds.”

We have seen, like everybody else, that our professionals have decided to work slightly differently post COVID-19

Jenny Patrick, head of field operations for optical and pharmacy at Asda Opticians

In Asda Opticians’ case, the “flexible pot” of hours that locums can provide has filled the gaps left by reduced hours contracts, allowing residents to better choose their own working patterns, Patrick explained.

The multiple has handled this by encouraging its job share option, which is “all tied into going part-time or reducing your hours,” Patrick said.

“There’s a real understanding that when you’ve got two residents who can job share, you’ve got that continuity,” she explained. “We’ve got some really successful job shares. We always encourage that when people come to talk to us about potentially reducing hours on a part-time basis, or on a more permanent basis, dependent on their own needs more than anything else.”

Other additions have included the opportunity for employees to work on a multi-site basis, so they can experience other areas and practices – something that has had strong uptake from those optometrists and dispensing opticians who work part-time and are keen to experience a different team and environment.

“[Our] stores are very different, from one to the next,” Patrick said.

She added: “That is something we’ve encouraged.”

A young woman dressed in a black suit and with shoulder length blonde hair is looking directly at the camera and smiling in front of royal blue wallpaper with a concentric gold pattern
Pamela Murray
Murray has also seen a change in expectation from employees in recent years, including a “real shift” in how Saturdays work – not only with team members increasingly choosing not to work at weekends, but also with footfall in general.

“We have seen people’s priorities change since COVID-19 and time off at the weekend is more important than ever,” she said. “People are more focused now on work-life balance, and that can involve things like weekends off, childcare, and holidays.”

Patrick added that, from Asda Optician’s perspective, “the business has to be more adaptable to these things. The job market is so different now, people can find the things that are important to them in jobs more easily [than they could before the pandemic].”

People’s priorities have change since COVID-19 and time off at the weekend is more important than ever

Pamela Murray, operations manager Urquhart Opticians

Challenges and positive change

Despite a positivity towards flexible working and having a large number of policies to manage it in place, Patrick admits that adapting has been a challenge.

“A lot of people have not only decided to change their working patterns, but have also decided to leave us, because they’ve decided that fundamentally this is not what they want to do every day,” she shared.

For those employees that have stayed, the number of requests for career breaks have increased, Patrick said, adding that Asda Opticians allows colleagues to take an unpaid break from the business for a period of three months to one year.

This is a positive, Patrick said: “We’ve seen that that grow, which is great, because that policy is there to be used.”

She added: “People might want to go on and do some more study. Some of our individuals have gone to do charity work, that they want to commit to for a period of time. We’ve seen that really grow.”

The number of employees taking dependent, emergency, parental and wellbeing leave has also grown: “We’ve seen our optical professionals take advantage more of the volume of flexible working options that are out there, more so than they did before COVID-19,” Patrick said.

Parental leave, for colleagues with over 12 months service who have formal parental responsibilities, has become particularly popular, she shared, adding that term-time working is coming into play more now than it did previously.

“That [parental leave] gives them freedom,” Patrick said.

She added: “We are more predominantly female now in the workplace, from an optometry perspective. These are the kinds of benefits that we are asked about. It’s something candidates now ask upfront, rather than, ‘I’ll take the job and then I’ll find out.’ They want to be really clear on what’s available before they step in.”

Patrick explained that candidates, before even reaching interview stage, are increasingly likely to raise the issue of flexible working.

“A conversation that used to be 80% about pay is now not balanced in that same way,” she said. “The scales have tipped. That flexibility and need to understand what we can offer as an employer is much more important.”

“At the point of recruitment,” she added, “we wouldn't take anything off the table. It’s a candidate led-market, in the world that we’re in.”

If there is one positive that has come out of COVID-19, she believes, it is that a narrowness when it comes to flexibility has been left behind: “That’s gone, and we think now about how we could actually make that vacancy work for that individual when they tell us [what their needs are].”

Patrick added: “We are getting a lot more honesty from candidates, which is a great thing. That aids retention, because people get in, they’re happy, everybody has been up front, and we know what’s expected from both sides. It builds for a longer-term relationship.”

We are getting a lot more honesty from candidates, which is a great thing. That aids retention

Jenny Patrick, head of field operations for optical and pharmacy at Asda Opticians

Rotas and working patterns

At Urquhart Opticians, Murray is mindful of making sure concessions for flexible working are not perceived by other colleagues as preferential treatment.

“A common challenge that I find with working patterns is that you might make a change to help with one person’s request, but that may then affect another person,” she said.

“We never want the team to feel one individual is getting preferential treatment. It’s key to balance everyone’s expectations. You always have to be on the front foot of any potential impact one person’s request may have. We do our best to make each request work, but it can’t be at the expense of the team.”

Murray looks after working patterns and rotas for around 50 staff members, she explained.

“Key priorities are striking the right balance of working patterns that suit not only the business, but the team,” she said. “If we strike the right balance, then you have a happy and productive team and have all the people in the right places at the right time.”

She added: “It is trying to meet the expectations of every team member. Rotas and working patterns take time to build. When I publish our rotas, they aren’t done the day before: I have spent weeks preparing, considering holidays and flexibility around days off. I can then see how this may impact to the business and what options are available: do I have enough people at all 11 practices? With 50 employees, we have different levels of skills, so are skillsets in the right places?”

The time and effort taken in getting working patterns right is essential in order to ensure flexibility around people’s personal lives, Murray explained.

Urquhart Opticians joined the Hakim Group family of independent practices in 2022, and Murray added that it is “great to have the back-office support of the teams at Hakim Group HQ to lean on when reviewing policies and issuing guidelines to our teams.”
Patrick believes that the size of Asda’s company-wide operation makes this process easier than it might be at a smaller independent group.

“When you’ve got a breadth of policies, as we have as a business, no matter what the scenario that we find anybody comes to us with, we can find the right flexible working policy for them to apply under,” she said.

“It’s very rare that a rota request from any professional would be rejected. We’re very fortunate [to be] in a world where we can backfill with locums. We do have that capability to be able to allow the department to function, to keep turning the wheels.”

Patrick noted one scenario that the nature of the job does not allow for, however: “The only flexible working policy that we have where we come unstuck is around remote working, just because of the nature of the rules that we have.”

It’s about letting your team know that you acknowledge what they require and why it’s important to them

Pamela Murray, operations manager Urquhart Opticians

With this in mind, OT is interested in finding out whether Murray and Patrick have any advice for dealing with unusual situations or non-standard flexible working requests sensitively.

Murray would always start with an honest conversation and a consideration of all angles, whatever the request may be, she explained. If the specific request cannot be achieved after all angles have been explored, what other options are available?

“It’s about letting your team know that you acknowledge what they require and why it’s important to them, and then making sure they know that whatever the outcome, they have your full support and understanding,” she said.

The wider infrastructure that Asda has available – an advice and guidance help centre, employment lawyers in situ, occupational health therapists and wellbeing practitioners – means there are existing resources to call on for help in these situations, Patrick explained.

“They’re all there for us, so we would utilise them,” she said. “If something totally bespoke came through in a request and we weren’t entirely sure how it would fit under any policy, we would reach out to try and understand how we could support that colleague.”

At its heart, flexible working is about equity – and that is something that Patrick is keen to emphasise as true at Asda Opticians, across all levels.

“We have a library of flexible working policies that fit in to the overarching flexible working scheme that we run as a business,” she said. “They are open to everyone, whether they be hourly paid, salaried, whether they be in home office or in a store – we've got an umbrella approach, so that not one group is at a disadvantage to another.”

She added: “There might be different things to consider, of course, for each individual, depending on the role that they do.”

Everyone working in optometry is entitled to apply for any of the company’s flexible working schemes, Patrick said: “That’s a big thing for us. It’s about that inclusion, so that it’s fair for everyone. An optical colleague working on the shop floor, for example, would be entitled to the same and could apply under the same umbrella of all the policies that we have across our business. That’s always a good thing, and it’s always seen as fair. I think that’s something that we’re quite proud of.”