Flexible Working, Should Just be Working.

Testing a prototype of a flexible working space designed by Millar + Howard Workshop

The “Having It All” Myth

A product of a 1980s feminist schooling, I believed my head teacher’s optimistic words when she proclaimed what a lucky generation of young women we were to have a female Prime Minister blazing the trail for not just working women, but those in senior positions too. I fully bought into this aspiration even more when she told us that despite being female, we really could “have it all”. 24 years, nine jobs and three children later I now know, that having it all is not just a myth but a futile aspiration too. A recent report in The Observer bore testament to that stating that working mothers are up to “40% more stressed”. Of course I strive for success, and part of that, I discovered, comes from having a fulfilling job and using the education I worked (mostly) hard for. Yet equally, I want to be a present mother to my children, as well as try to be a supportive wife/daughter/friend etc. and run a home that isn’t too filthy — sharing domestic chores with my husband obviously. Part-time work seemed the obvious solution but I was, unsurprisingly, reluctant to settle for my grandmother’s out-dated suggestion of “a little admin job for a bit of pin money”. The scientists who contributed to the Observers report found that flexitime (choosing which 7 hours you work each day) didn’t seem to make any difference to working mothers’ stress levels, yet reduced hours did. Part-time, flexible work (choice of hours, days and location) is surely then the answer?

Job hunting after taking a break from paid work to have children turned out to be completely demoralising. I searched for: part-time, in South West England, within commuting distance of three major cities. I was presented with over 1,700 jobs. I was optimistic. But, when I waded through, it transpired, a mere 48 were for qualified professionals. That’s less than 3% which means over 97% of the part time jobs within my search criteria did not require a higher education or any previous experience. These remaining roles were all waiting tables, bar work, shop assistants, supermarket tellers, care workers, teaching assistants and pages and pages of administrative office roles. Part-time, from a hopeful employer’s perspective, seemed to be a byword for “picking up the slack”. The vast majority of the jobs which demanded a degree or a level of experience were full time — effectively ruling out anyone who had other demands on their time. Qualifications and employment history were completely irrelevant for part-time work. It seemed to me that acknowledging that a career break could provide enriching experiences and transferable skills was beyond even contemplating.

I want to continue to be a parent and work but why has it become too much to ask to be a valued contributor to satisfying work and, as a parent, audaciously want to spend time with my children in the vain hope of helping them become well adjusted adults? Adults which, incidentally, are the future’s workforce. Adults which Mary Portas pointed out in her book Work Like a Women, won’t be paid equally according to their gender until way past the current cohort of graduates have retired. We owe it to those graduates to at least be more open with them and help them create a new reality which enables an achievable balance of work and life beyond, that is less about having it all and more about being honest about it all.

My Flexible Friend

I work for a small business which is 50% women (fist pump), a third of us work part-time and half of those are men (double fist pump). Flexible working is well established and understood here, it’s normal and seems unfathomable to us that this approach still isn’t standard in all workplaces. A flexible approach is integral to the function of my workplace because it’s essential to those that work here. My directors recognise that adulthood is a balancing act, so have consciously curated an atmosphere of trust and gratitude. As such, they are rewarded with high levels of focus, dedication and perhaps most importantly, productivity from their staff who work around a whole plethora of other commitments: study time, teaching yoga, practising yoga, long distance relationships, school concerts, caring for elderly relatives etc. etc. etc.

In my current role, I balance three school-hour days a week during term time for my employers and have been told by fellow mums and dads that it’s the holy grail for a working parent — but it shouldn’t be. And isn’t that the actual issue? I shouldn’t need to cling on to this job for dear life because it’s the only one in a 200 mile radius that combines making use of my skills and child-friendly timings. Jobs with flexible hours should be an actual option. My hours, the work I produce and corresponding wage bill work for both sides. Their budget could cover a full time recent graduate or a part-time knowledgeable, experienced candidate — me. I was able to identify their needs and hit the ground running with implementing solutions. Sure I pick up bits from home in the evening and at weekends not just because I have to but because I want to; I want to not only because I’m interested in what I do, but because I know I’m trusted and respected so in return I want to do the best job I possibly can for the people (not the company, the actual individual personalities I know and respect) that I work for. I happily swap my days around meetings if required and equally if I need to switch working hours around school commitments, elderly grandparents or even trips away with friends — I can, no problem. There are procedures in place obviously — that’s just common courtesy — but really it’s based on mutual respect and a mature attitude amongst my fellow work colleagues.

Gathering colleagues with shared values together builds healthy working relationships

These values are prevalent through the company because it’s a truly results-based culture where the company-wide focus is on the outcomes rather than the specific methods. We have autonomy over our own jobs — with support and guidance — but the common goal remains to get the work done; how, when and where are of less importance. This has created a great atmosphere of collaboration which is great for morale and we all reap the benefits of high levels of productivity and client satisfaction.

Culture Club

One of the most prohibitive elements to a workforce built on flexible working is not the lack of demand from the employees but the management’s closed mindset. Changing processes, work flows and methods, which in many cases, appear to function well, can be daunting and seem unnecessary, but the way we live has changed; the way we work needs to. As Lisa Unwin, co-author of She’s Back wrote: “We are facing an age of disruption: the 100 year life, rapid technological change — this means we are all likely to have multiple careers and therefore need to be much better at pivoting from one to the other, taking breaks, shifting our focus and energy.”

Technology has allowed for so many different ways and whereabouts of completing a task. Companies often pride themselves on being innovative — technologically speaking — with up to date equipment and apps but allowing for it, and its users to maximise the remote working potential seems to be slower on the uptake than the initial investment. Fear of change, fear of raised or misspent costs are understandable to an extent while a fear of employees taking advantage or threatening power are less so and create an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude. But is it really not broken? Are we just putting up with the current system?

Businesses which took the steps to change the culture — and Mary Portas put is so beautifully “culture eats strategy for breakfast” — are benefiting in so many ways which all feed into each other: raised productivity, happy and fulfilled workers, content clients, increased profits, decreased absenteeism, increased employee loyalty. Companies which embrace flexible working are ones which place emphasis on what is to be achieved, rather than the means by which it is done. Smarter Working Initiative founder, Jason Downes said “we’ve found that companies offering workers more freedom are often the most successful”. And the statistics from research by PowWowNow on what the workforce is requesting are compelling: 70% of workers feel that offering flexible working makes a job more attractive to them.

Generation Z is now old enough to be part of our workforce and they’re more savvy and demanding than any predecessors. According to ACAS they put emphasis on flexible working hours and see the contribution a healthy work/life balance can have on their own personal successes. They also demand an open and honest management with an authentic working culture and place importance on the need for ongoing training and development. They crave a secure job but recognise their need to be nimble and to learn as many skills as possible so demand employers to the same. This generation has seemingly learned from our frazzled state that it’s impossible to have it all. Employers need to catch up and realise that a workforce with a work/life balance provide organisations with the expertise, experience and enthusiasm that’s required to be incredibly productive.

A Cup of Ambition

Finding an employer that didn’t see my commitments outside of work as being detrimental to their bottom line, proved to be ridiculously hard. I had to rethink my whole situation and approach work as a GenZer (sorry — it’s what they call themselves): with an emphasis on combining work with all the other elements of my life rather than the part of my life which consumes most of my time. Organisations which realise that employees bring their experiences from outside of work into their jobs are surely the ones which thrive — GenZers are unlikely to work under any other regime. But the responsibility for change and adaptation is on all generations. We all need to be flexible in how we approach work. We should rename flexible working to be just “work” and call out other options as being inflexible and, well, unworkable.

Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash

Dolly Parton famously declared via her glorious anthem that working 9–5 was “all taking and no giving” in 1980, lyrics which seemingly passed by my headmistress. That was nearly 40 years ago and yet it’s still the predominant working option despite the shift change in how we consume and live. As equality is rightly sought in gender, pay and race, we should be seeking change in our working patterns too; change that really does deliver a better way to make a living.

Technology and our corresponding impatience for delay and reliance on advancements has created a new world which is at our fingertips 24/7 so let’s actually live in it and not restrict work to 9–5, Monday — Friday 48 weeks of the year. Let’s pick and choose a bit. We can click in and out from practically any location in the world; we don’t need to adhere to the restriction of clocking in and out of our workplace anymore. Welcome to the future of service and devotion.