Zurich’s HR boss on why business needs to start celebrating part-time working

Tackling diversity, especially at management level, is a priority for most firms. Zurich is trying a different approach by offerings all its roles on a flexible, part-time basis


This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.

Back in 2019, Zurich insurance realised it had a problem. Despite high numbers of women in its workforce, there were too few in the top jobs. 

This meant that despite the fact it paid men and women equally for similar jobs, its gender pay gap remained stubbornly high. It reported a mean gender pay gap of 22.8% and a median of 22.6% in 2018, although both figures were improvements compared to 2017.

Bonuses, however, showed a different story, with the mean and median pay gap coming in at 51.9% and 44.9% respectively, up from 47.2% and 34.2% in 2017.

The company asked its behavioural insights team to investigate the issue. What it discovered was that an apparent lack of flexibility could be holding women back from applying for more senior roles. 

Zurich therefore made the decision to advertise all its vacancies as part-time, job share or full-time. The hope was this would encourage more women to apply for the top roles.

We’ve seen lots of people apply for jobs with us who may never have previously considered a role in financial services

The behavioural insights team used nudge theory to determine the best wording for job ads. Every role that is advertised internally and externally carries the words “part-time, job-share, full-time” at the top; the only current exceptions are for executive positions.

“We were aware there was a lack of women climbing to the top of the organisation in both senior technical and senior leadership roles,” Zurich HR director Steve Collinson tells Raconteur. “We wanted to understand what was going on.”

The move to advertise more flexible working aimed to test if being more open about the part-time opportunities at the business and extending the option to every role would help to diversify its applicant pool. 

“We can now see from the data, that’s pretty much exactly what’s happened,” says Collinson.

Improving diversity through its part-time offer

After two years of collecting data, Zurich found that the number of part-time hires doubled, while demand from women for part-time roles increased by 83% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Overall, applications for vacancies at the insurer have risen by two-thirds since the initiative’s launch.

Zurich believes this is because its jobs are now appealing to a more diverse range of candidates. While some of those who choose to work fewer hours than a standard 35-hour week are doing so due to childcare, the company found a myriad of reasons why people wanted to work part-time. These included the flexibility to pursue outside interests, people with health challenges or disabilities and people who needed to care for other relatives besides their children.

Collinson describes as an “inescapable fact” that, in the UK, the majority of childcare responsibilities still tend to fall on women. This may explain why 23% of women have opted for a more flexible working arrangement over the past 12 months at Zurich, compared with only 2% of men.

The gender pay gap has also reduced. For 2020 (the most recent figures available), the mean pay gap had dropped to 19.7% and the median to 17.5%. The bonus pay gap is down to a mean of 39% and a median of 25.5%.

That year, Zurich also experienced a 16% rise in women applying for jobs and a 20% rise in applications for management roles. The number of women hired for senior roles increased by a third, although they still only accounted for 31.6% of the highest paid jobs, compared to 60.2% of the lowest paid.

Zurich’s gender pay gap
YearMean pay gapMedian pay gap
201727.3%27.4%
201822.8%22.6%
201920.7%20.2%
202019.7%17.5%
Source: Zurich Insurance, 2021

Pay is calculated on a pro-rata basis and Collinson says some of Zurich’s most senior leaders have taken up the option to switch to part-time.

“We’ve seen lots of people apply for jobs with us who may never have previously considered a role in financial services,” he adds. “Even if they don’t need that level of flexibility at this stage of their career, they are saying they want to work for an employer where its approach to work is reflected in the organisation’s culture.”

Collinson believes that the policy, which is now permanent, will also have the long-term benefit of improving employee retention. 

“Employees who want flexibility will often leave their employer if it’s not available,” he says. “What we’ve done is protect people and hopefully give them a long-term career which can provide them with the flexibility they need as and when they need it.”

Rising demand for flexible working

The change in working habits over the course of the pandemic has also influenced the new hiring policy. Despite having a flexible working policy in place pre-Covid, uptake is far more widespread now. 

“Managers have also realised that providing flexibility for people with different working patterns is what’s helped to keep the businesses going throughout the pandemic,” Collinson adds.

Making the transition has not come without its challenges. Training has been crucial. 

“Some hiring managers were saying that they needed people who were available full-time, so we’ve had to educate them,” he says. “It’s been a case of asking: ‘Wouldn’t you rather have the best person for the job out of the entire pool of talent that’s available, rather than the person who can work Monday to Friday?’”

We need a cultural revolution to celebrate part-time working. If your business is up for the challenge, you need to make the commitment now and equip your hiring managers to drive that cultural change

Another issue that arose was that splitting the workload between part-time staff meant more work was needed to recruit enough people. Collinson believes that being part of a large organisation has helped in this regard. 

“Each hiring manager might have a couple of vacancies a year where there’ll be hiring two people rather than one,” he says. “There’s a definite impact on hiring managers, but as an organisation of 4,500 people we’re able to spread the load.”

At a point when competition for talent is at record levels across most business sectors in the UK, having a point of differentiation can be particularly useful. Collinson says: “It feels to me that a lot of employers are discouraging talented people from applying by not adopting part-time or flexible working options.” 

Following the success of its initiative, Zurich is urging the government to legislate for all employers over a certain size to make their vacancies available on a part-time basis. 

Collinson says: “We need a cultural revolution to celebrate part-time working. If your business is up for the challenge, you need to make the commitment now and equip your hiring managers to drive that cultural change.”