How Zurich Insurance trailblazed flexible working by making all jobs part-time


Making every job 'part-time' and 'flexible' was a big move for a traditional insurance firm but the well-known business, Zurich has reaped the benefits and trailblazed a path for others in the industry to follow...

Making every job 'part-time' and 'flexible' was a big move for a traditional insurance firm but the well-known business, Zurich has reaped the benefits and trailblazed a path for others in the industry to follow.

It’s five years since insurance giant, Zurich UK began advertising all its jobs as part time. Back in 2019, most businesses were trying to hold onto their Covid hats, navigate the pandemic and keep their businesses afloat. This business, however, decided to go in a different direction and look at how to open its doors to talent to a wider pool. It began to advertise all of its roles as, ‘flexible, part-time or job share’ and while the world was surviving the biggest health crisis of our time, Zurich was quietly quadrupling its part-time employees and increasing the number of female part-time hires almost four-fold.

The method behind the madness:

Steve Collinson is Chief HR Officer at Zurich UK, a post he has held since 2018, just a year before the pandemic hit. He begins by saying that the initiative was driven by a desire to tackle some of the diversity challenges, primarily looking at issues including gender.

“The biggest way you can move the dial on things like diversity is by attracting the widest range of people to apply.”

The realisation was that to deploy this, the business needed to attract people at different stages of their lives and to rid the business of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ narrow approach to employee benefits. Underpinning the policies was flexibility for everyone. The offering to staff translated as time away from work for fertility treatment, allowances to manage caring responsibilities, support for menopause and baby loss - to name just a handful of the employee ‘next-level’ support policies on the table.

We’ve definitely been a supporter of flexible working for the past ten years, but in 2019 we decided to put that flexibility front and centre stage, changing the way we advertised every job in the firm to be offered on a part-time basis

Steve Collinson | Chief HR Officer at Zurich UK

“We’ve definitely been a supporter of flexible working for the past ten years, but in 2019 we decided to put that flexibility front and centre stage, changing the way we advertised every job in the firm to be offered on a part-time basis,” explains Collinson.

Working with the behavioural insights team (BIT), Collinson and the Zurich HR department started off by defining the language. Utilising key terms, including: part time, job share and full time. It was, Collinson says, a ‘psychological nudge.’

Data revealed that women were being held back in their careers because there was a lack of access to flexible roles, and it became evident that this was not only at the beginning of employee careers but also as they wanted to climb the ladder to more senior positions to higher salaries because many of those positions were advertised and being performed as full-time positions.

“What we did with the BIT is flip the default, we altered what we had worked with for generations as full-time working being the norm.”

Steve Collinson


Chief HR Officer

Hayley Gare


Business Manager

The reaction:

Collinson refers to the ‘cultural outputs,’ by this he means that the response was that they had more or less a doubling of applicants per role. It meant that positions were getting a greater response from a wider range of people, widening the top of the recruitment funnel. Not only that, but feeding into the cultural changes, the HR team began to realise that while the entire Zurich population did not necessarily want or could afford to work part-time, what was being recognised was that when applicants looked at the business as a potential employer, they were beginning to take note that they could work flexibly in the future if their circumstances changed and they wanted or needed to.

“It has opened up people’s minds about working for a Swiss insurer within the financial services sector,” by this Collinson means that the idea that a traditional insurance business could be flexible about how and when work is performed became a big sea change in its employer brand. He adds, “We’re loving taking the lead on part time and flexible working.”

Zurich has been a huge support to me both professionally with development opportunities, but also personally, enabling me to change my working week to balance to fit the needs of my family. As my family have grown, I have been able to flex my hours whilst also meeting my career goals and growing professionally

Hayley Gare | Business Manager at Zurich UK

The idea of ‘life-stage’ benefits has been key to the initiative. Family policies at the insurer are not limited to parents or new parents. The business has widened its reach to anyone with caring responsibilities, whichever end of the age spectrum they may be from elder care responsibilities to new babies and in between. It doesn’t rest there though, however, and Collinson is keen to express that it extends to, ‘anyone that just wants to.’ A descriptive need doesn’t need to be the bargaining chip.

What those at Zurich report:

Hayley Gare is a great example of how the policies can be leveraged for working parents. With 18 years’ service, she has flexed her hours over the years and has been afforded flexible working since she had her daughter ten years ago. During this time, she has been promoted to a team manager, leading a team of 14, many of whom also work part-time. She spends a couple of days in the office, but also when working from home flexes her hours to accommodate school runs.

“Zurich has been a huge support to me both professionally with development opportunities, but also personally, enabling me to change my working week to balance to fit the needs of my family. As my family have grown, I have been able to flex my hours whilst also meeting my career goals and growing professionally.

“Being promoted to Team Manager has meant that I can now also support those in my team to work part-time and show that as a team we can do it, and as a manager I can do it,” says Hayley Gare.

At the other end of the generational working rung is Alan Roxborough. He was due to retire at 60 last year but felt that he wasn’t quite ready after working 12 years for the company as an underwriter. Following a four-month sabbatical, he returned to work for one and a half days a week (six days a month), enabling him to pursue hobbies outside of work whilst also feeling happy that he was able to contribute and be a part of his team. Commenting upon his return to work, Alan says, “When the time came to retire, I just didn’t feel quite ready. My manager was really great at working with me to make a plan for where I could go next within my role and we decided that I could use my knowledge and skills to work on a projects basis. I’m now really enjoying working one and a half days a week, whilst also enjoying gardening and many other hobbies I’ve never had time for.”

Neil Fisher is a great example of those that just want flexibility for other causes. A Market Strategy Consultant at the business, he utilised flex working to enable him to train for ordination in the Church of England. Attending theological college one day a week, as well as flexing his hours, Neil bought extra holiday to ensure he had enough time off to cover residential study and time off for himself. He is due to be ordained as deacon in the Church of England at the end of June this year.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have an employer who fully supports both my work life and my ordination journey," says Neil Fisher about the flexibility Zurich has shown him.

Employees can request by law the right to flexible working from day one

Changing mindsets:

Collinson admits that it wasn’t an easy initiative to embed to start off with, but the starting point was and continues to be having open conversations with employees. In the early days, he says the new policy was surrounded by some suspicion and concern from some managers that were concerned that entire teams may want to work either part-time or flexibly and leave them with gaps in performance and production.

A further approach is clear guidance over conflict of interest. There is no room for working for a competitor on the days that Zurich employees are not working for the business. It’s a key guidance that enables parameters to be in place.

Altering attitudes has also been about addressing the gaps in women’s pensions. Collinson felt a need to acknowledge that many women miss financial contributions due to taking time out to care for young children or start a family.

“As a financial services provider we recognise that the pensions gap for women is very substantial and significant to fill. Women generally retire with a significantly smaller pension pot than men,” he says.

The business wanted to ensure that as well as women, they also embraced the fact that many men wanted to experience family life and be part of it and not just be at work all the time. “Everybody's entitled to exactly the same 16 weeks full pay, regardless of how you become a parent or what your family looks like.”

We always say to everybody in our organisation, regardless of how you work, never let a customer down. If a customer needs you to be somewhere, you should be somewhere. If a customer needs you to be face to face, you should be face to face. So, we try to have that founding principle of putting the customer at the heart of this

Steve Collinson | Chief HR Officer at Zurich UK

The result has been that these trends aren’t exclusive to females as the number of male part-time hires has also more than doubled since 2019 too. Not only have the number of men taking up more flexibility been encouraging but it has also enabled many families to open up their approach to what is possible and the different configurations for making childcare and careers work for all parties.

As well as more men taking up flexible opportunities, the business also reports that it has benefitted from the power of job-shares. “Why wouldn't you want two brains in a role rather than one? If you've got a job share, yes, of course I acknowledge it means more performance reviews and career conversations but the benefit that you get from having two brains coming at one job is incredible, and we have some awesome stories around the power of that.”

Enabling how job-shares work in practice is the key and Collinson says that each partnership works differently with individual managers responsible for enabling how it works in reality.

The customer comes first:

Like any business there needs to be some ground-rules and with flexibility, the business hasn’t lost sight of its overarching aims. Collinson says, “We always say to everybody in our organisation, regardless of how you work, never let a customer down. If a customer needs you to be somewhere, you should be somewhere. If a customer needs you to be face to face, you should be face to face. So, we try to have that founding principle of putting the customer at the heart of this.”

Collinson has discovered that this fundamental rule has not been lost and that his career experience has taught him that when you give people your commitment you get it back. “Since we have made this whole suite of changes around benefits and flexibility over the last five years, our part time workforce has shown exactly the same levels of employee engagement.” It’s something to be proud of, says Collinson who says that he feels rewarded that part time workers at Zurich offer the same value and give to a career in the same way as full-time staff.

Reflecting upon the path to flexibility Collinson says, “I suppose my reflection would be if you are going to blaze a trail, you're going to have to do some stuff that's a bit different, that might feel a little uncomfortable and Zurich’s approach to this is particular.”

Effective from 6 April, 2024, employees can request by law the right to flexible working from day one of their employment.

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