Seasonal Variations in Delivery – feedback and views from the frontline

Your Voice

A policy of mutually agreed shorter duties during the summer and longer shifts in the lead-up to Christmas clearly makes sense as an idea, and is a far better alternative to annualised hours, but how has it been working out in practice? And are there improvements that can be made going forward?

Seasonal Variations (SV) in Delivery was a policy adopted by the CWU at our March 2022 Policy Forum – several months before the national dispute began – as our preferred alternative to the company’s proposals to move towards annualised hours or flexi-bank hours systems. When the dispute came to an end earlier this year, the company and the union reached agreement on introducing this system, initially through selected trials and then across the operation.

From a base line of the regular 37-hour week for full-time delivery workers, the agreed SV system essentially divides the working year into three parts – reducing the working week down to 35 hours during the late spring and summer, increasing to 39 hours from September until Christmas and then returning to the regular 37 until the following late spring.

The trial began in June of this year at 10 pilot units altogether, with one chosen from each of Royal Mail’s operational Divisions – to ensure an even geographical spread – and a mix of different sized offices and a combination of urban, suburban and rural units. And in the Summer 2023 Edition of Voice, (Pages Eight & Nine) we looked in detail at the first phase of the trial at two of the trial units – Felixstowe in Suffolk and East Finchley in north London – as the reduced daily shifts were being introduced.

The other eight trial units (respective Divisions in brackets) were:

Sheffield City (North East);

Omagh (Northern Ireland);

Lanark (Scotland);

Ruislip (South Central);

Sheerness (South East);

Falmouth (South West/South Wales);

Porthmadog (North Wales/North West);

Burton-on-Trent (Midlands)

This autumn, the 39-hour stage of SV – an extra 24 minutes at the start of each day – has been rolled out to all 1,400 delivery offices around the UK. And to follow-up on our summer article, we recently returned to Felixstowe – and made a first visit to Sheffield – to see how our frontline delivery members were experiencing the opposite aspect of the system, with the increased duty time as they entered the seasonal pressure period.

Felixstowe Delivery Office is a smaller than average unit, with 41 staff in post, and delivers to the IP11 post code area. During the summer, the full-time staff began 14 minutes later each day and finished 10 minutes earlier than they would have done on a 37-hour week. On our second visit a couple of weeks ago, CWU rep Dan Smy told us that they had jumped from 35 hours to 39 hours and that they were now starting 24 minutes earlier each day than on their 37-hour duties.

“The first couple of weeks on this was a bit quiet, but it’s building up now and also there are a lot more packets nowadays,” he says, adding that he has been on calls with the other SV pilot site units and “I’ve kept my members here in the loop.” Dan (pictured above left in cap) says that, in his opinion, “seasonal variations works well as an idea and it’s a much better alternative than annualised hours,” although the office was currently carrying two vacancies.

Speaking with others around the office, as they sort and then load up for delivery, the general consensus seems to be of a good idea but one that perhaps needs one or two tweaks to make it fully effective. Chris Snell criticises what he sees as a lack of co-ordination across the mails pipeline, saying that the SV system would work better “if everything was in synch.” And Dan Smy explains that the mail “comes here in three waves” from Ipswich Mail Centre, agreeing that rest of the operation needs to be in alignment to avoid waiting time.

The 17th December ending of the extended hours is something that many of the delivery OPGs want to see extended, including Katura Greenacres (pictured above right at frame), who says: “I don’t mind it. The theory does work, but the longer hours are ending too early – we need them closer to Christmas” and Craige Thomas (pictured above left speaking with Dan), who comments: “I’d give it the thumbs-up as a concept. But it should continue until Christmas Eve.”

Others echo some of these feelings, with Alex McCarthy saying that “at the moment it works,” but adds his concerns about the extended hours arrangements and increased workloads “as we push more into December,” while his colleague Janet Taylor, who, Dan explains, has a supervisory role at the unit, says: “Coming in earlier is better for me – I need more hours in the morning and it works better operationally.” But as others have also said, she adds: “I don’t understand why they’re stopping it before Christmas.”

The conversation with Dan and Janet moves onto the issue of resourcing and they make the point that, although being only two staff down would not impact a larger unit, it does make a difference at this relatively smaller office.

Sheffield City Delivery Office is significantly larger than Felixstowe, with 191 staff in post, serving the post codes S1-S4, S9, S11 and S14. Here we meet area delivery rep (ADR) Steve Sheldon, as well as unit rep Rohan Kon and deputy unit rep Ross Pettifer (pictured above left with Rohan centre and Steve on right). Sheffield’s Winter SV hours will also end on 17th December in accordance with outlined national arrangements.

There is a general view here that SV is a good idea in theory, but that other issues seem to overwhelm it and it is those other issues which soon start to dominate the conversations we have around the shop floor. Steve explains to us that a revision took place here on an imposed basis earlier this year and that this, on top of lasting issues from the 2022 national dispute add up to a challenging environment.

“There’s always been a pro-active and mutual approach to revisions in this branch and in our Division, but this one was imposed,” Steve explains, adding: “They’ve taken out a lot of hours, imposed unachievable spans and the PIR (post-implementation review) was highly unsatisfactory. Some managers locally are OK, and trying to solve these issues – the parameters and the workloads – and I’ve got a meeting with the new incoming manager here today to try and make some progress in this office.”

On the SV system, Steve says that the two-hour summer reduction came in at a time when members were already struggling with these issues arising from the revision and that, unfortunately because of this context, it added to their anxieties. “For example,” he says, “we did avoid summer lapsing, but the imposed revision had made it impossible to lapse walks in any case due to such a low ‘Model Week’.

“And the extended hours that we’re on now,” Steve continues, “started perhaps a week or two too early and finishes early. Some element of flexibility locally may have helped – more so on the commercial duties where the outdoor does not fluctuate as much as a residential delivery.”

Rohan says that, in her opinion, the SV was introduced in the midst of a range of problems in the office. She tells us that some staff were working through their breaks during the reduced summer hours and that now, some staff are even coming in earlier than the early, Winter SV, start, because there are not enough staff to clear the office’s workload.

Speaking to members around the office, similar worries and concerns are expressed. Gareth Needham says: “We need more walks put on.” The SV system is, he insists, “a good concept to work for – and it still could be. But we need a proper revision – with the union – and to be fully staffed,” while James Reid comments: “It’s not working at all – there’s not enough time” and Ashley Moore says: “Summer-wise it didn’t work and it doesn’t work in winter either. We’re still going over. We need to work to mirror the hours – it needs to be adjusted.”

When we ask Rohan how many vacancies there are, she asks a passing manager, who replies: “None.” When Rohan questions that, the manager clarifies that there are “13 DPR vacancies,” which indicates that DPRs – dedicated parcel routes – seem to have been collapsed-back into general workload here.

On the day we visited Sheffield – appropriately on a Wednesday – the unit rep Rohan was working her notice and leaving to join the Fire Brigade, with her deputy Ross set to take over her duties pending the scheduled branch elections.

Ross, who has worked here for three years, tells us that this unit regularly fails to clear, saying: “Every day, we don’t complete and 37 walks have failed. They’ve cut staff and under SV we have earlier starts – and people still come in earlier.”

At her frame, Katie Summerhayes (above left), who has been here for one year, says that “every day I get more work.” She says that the biggest issues have arisen from the revision and adds: “We need a complete review of the revision. If we were fully staffed, it would all be more achievable,” while Craig Stewart (above right), with 46 years’ service, says: “There are just not enough people here.”

Outside of the office, out on delivery, we speak with Ian Damms, who tells us: “Seasonal Variations is a good idea – but a good idea that’s not being done properly.

“We’ve got to get the walks right and the staffing too. There are not enough staff.”

Your CWU Outdoor Secretary Mark Baulch responds…

Speaking with Mark Baulch this week, he started by reminding us that “Seasonal Variation was not just an alternative to Royal Mail’s annualised hours and total flexibility plans outlined at the beginning of our dispute last year, it was the direct antidote.

“Alongside that,” he continued: “Seasonal Variation (SV) is also designed to seek to reduce and address lapsing and absorption which has been and remains a problem within Deliveries for some 16 years now, and how we honestly deal with fluctuating workload over the year.

“That said, no change is easy,” Mark went on “and although, there is nothing new in duty patterns and members working different hours in the week to their contract hours – nine-day fortnights and ‘Wallington’ attendance patterns being two examples of this – it was clear that SV would be difficult for many reasons against a difficult background and within many units where the delivery and duty structure was broken with the imposition of un-agreed revisions.”

Mark explained that the union has sought to set out clear guidance and safeguards to support the move over to SV, ensuring it would be applied in the same way in all units, but with some local flexibility on moving some duties out of scope for the attendance changes. And the CWU has also ensured that there was an individual exception process in place for those members who due to personal factors could not adopt the revised attendance patterns.

Moving onto other aspects of SV, our Outdoor Secretary said: “There’s no doubt that there are some areas that we need to review with Royal Mail, including and in particular, its impact on annual leave arrangements and planning. On this point, we have been clear that the agreement on SV should not have any detrimental impact on members booked or planned annual leave for 2023/2024, or carried over leave into the next leave year.”

However, the union is aware of concerns raised in terms of how this has impacted and changed individual annual leave entitlements both in the PSP system and the Royal Mail PeopleApp. “This has been picked up with Royal Mail directly,” says Mark “and we’re hoping to issue further clarification shorty, to allay any concerns in terms of the roll out of seasonal variation and annual leave and further allow individuals to make informed decisions on annual leave applications against the known impact of SV over the season cycle going forward.

“Equally, we are jointly reviewing other aspects of SV with Royal Mail based on the feedback we have received from our reps and members. These talks remain ongoing, but we are hopeful that we can find several mutually agreed areas for review and possible change to build on the learning points of SV,” Mark explained.

Going forward, a joint FAQ document was agreed with Royal Mail to cover many of the resulting issues and questions resulting from the change and the CWU is seeking to update this shortly based on feedback received from members.