Those of you who follow my blog will know I tend to write about copywriting or about freelancing, and that my posts are often on the short-and-sweet side, rather than the long and wordy. Today’s offering is a bit different. Today, I have my soapbox out. Prepare yourselves.
The thing is, this is an issue close to my heart, and close to the hearts of a lot of people I know, respect and value. And the post has been fermenting for a while, slowly taking shape as I weave together issues like flexible working, gender equality, balance in the workplace and diversity in general.
Not much then.
Now’s your chance to step away. You have been warned. If you’re still with us, fasten your seatbelt and come along for the ride.
But with such a lot to cover, where do I start? Well, gender equality is as good a place as any.
The road towards gender equality is a gnarly, complicated one.
The gender pay gap. Sexual harassment and the #MeToo campaign. Equal parenting and shared parental leave. Gender stereotypes and the preponderance of strongly gendered clothes and toys for children.
Of course it’s complicated. It’s a huge issue that’s been ingrained in our societies for generations and it’s not just going to resolve itself overnight. We may not be there yet, but we are making progress.
It’s been said a million times but it bears repeating.
Gender equality isn’t about making men and women the same, or about treating them the same. Men and women are different, just as every individual is different from the next. There is no one size fits all approach. The point is that we strive to treat everybody in a way which means they have equal chances in life.
And that brings me nicely to equality in general.
If gender equality is a gnarly, complicated beast I don’t know where to begin with equality in a wider sense. Legislation now extends across a range of different types of equality in an attempt to curb discrimination and open up opportunities, but legislation is only one part of the jigsaw. Laws can change, but that doesn’t mean attitudes, biases (of the conscious or unconscious kind), fears and beliefs change overnight. That takes time and hard work, and that’s the hardest bit.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is #BalanceForBetter. In that context, they’re talking about gender balance and the benefits that can bring across workplaces and beyond. But actually, whether we’re talking about race and ethnicity, illness and disability, sexuality, age or anything else, a more balanced workplace, community and society brings diversity, new perspectives, understanding and opportunities. In a world that’s facing more and more stresses, from our individual day-to-day lives right up to national and international politics, who wouldn’t want all those good things? We like the good things. The world needs more of the good things.
Today, though, I’m focusing on flexible working.
In fact it’s not just today that I’m thinking about that. This post has been brewing since last September, when I was lucky enough to attend a brilliant event all about flexible working.
I started planning this post on the walk home afterwards and I even started getting people’s thoughts for it back in October (they’ll be amazed to finally see this publish at last!). It has taken time to make it to the blog, but that’s because it’s important so I wanted to do it right. And when I saw theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, it all fell into place.
Anyway, back to that event: The Future of Flex.
Jess from Social Mama did what she does best, crafting an event which draws the crowds and delivers above and beyond expectations. The panel she brought together to discuss the benefits, challenges, frustrations and joys of working flexibly was fantastic. Chaired by Eleanor Denton of Flexible Working Mums Hertford, we heard from the likes of Anna Whitehouse (AKA Mother Pukka), The Lightbulb Tree’s Liese Lord, flexible working dad Rob Powell, Deb Khan (co-author of She’s Back) and Ursula Tavender of Mumbelieveable (along with her tiny bundle of joy, 5 week old Neo). Quite the line up!
But what exactly is flexible working?
Now forgive me if this seems obvious, but it’s worth discussing, because too many people think that flexible working is about going part time. And that’s not right. Going part time is part time working. Flexible working is about… flexibility. It’s not about working less, it’s about working differently, in a way that suits you but still allows you to get your job done (and in all probability means you’ll do your job better). So it’s about things like working from home, using conference calling instead of always meeting face-to-face and working hours that suit you rather than sticking doggedly to the 9-5 culture. It might mean still working in the regular office, but leaving an hour early to pick up the kids, and putting in that extra hour from home in the evening. It might mean working a compressed week (working five days’ hours in four), or looking at a job share as an option. It might mean working part time – that is, fewer hours, for less pay.
Gareth Hancock is a fellow freelance copywriter and for him and his family, flexible working has saved a huge amount of money. He says: “Before my youngest boy entered school, being able to start work at 1pm or 2pm in the afternoon, after his Mum had finished work, saved us thousands of pounds in childcare. Now, it means I’m able to do the school run twice a day and go to open mornings, school plays and sports days. Before I was freelance, I’d rely on grandparents for these things.”
Flexible working was a big factor in my decision to set up my own business, and I’m not alone.
When I did a survey on my social media profiles, the majority of people gave some kind of flexible working (whether for parental, caring or health reasons) as their main reason, followed closely by a genuine wish to work for themselves. Many of us had worked for organisations who nominally offer flexible working, but who in reality aren’t actually that flexible.
Most people I meet assume I work for myself because I need to balance family life with a career. That’s a fair assumption to make giving my age, but that’s not the case and I don’t have children. Flexibility helps me manage my health. Generally speaking, I work hard, achieve results and enjoy myself along the way. Every few weeks, though, I find myself in a situation where chronic pain and fatigue mean I need to take things a bit easy. As a freelancer I can manage that. As an employee, it was a problem. I would fall foul of attendance policies, unsympathetic bosses, and judgemental colleagues who’d think I was slacking. I found myself having to explain myself and my personal circumstances to people I wouldn’t normally share that with, just to avoid their assumptions about me. Working for myself I’m much more productive. I can rest when I need to, I can dose myself on painkillers on the really bad days, without having to worry about how I will get home through the dizziness and side effects. I can pace myself. And I’m not stressed about the next time I have to take a day off sick.
It’s about making life work better for you, and also for the other people in your life, whether they’re your kids, people you have caring responsibilities for, or your partner. Let’s allow Jake to give us an example: “My other half has a fairly stressful job, working for the NHS. Working from home (and having flexibility) means I can take care of stuff I don’t want her to be burdened with on top of her workload… [And] sitting behind a desk in a normal office job made me so unhealthy. Having the opportunity to work from a coffee shop or the park means I can take better care of myself, walk more, exercise more, prepare healthier food. I meet up with friends more often and squeeze much more happiness out of each day…”
All sorts of people can benefit from working flexibly. It’s not just for mums, and it’s not just for parents.
Flexible working is about people like me as much as it is about working mums, working dads, or people who care for elderly or ill relatives. It’s about people who work better at different times of day (often night owls, like me), but who are forced into a 9 to 5 system that doesn’t work for them. Co-founder of Mac & Moore, Natalie Moores, puts it beautifully: “The old cliché of inspiration striking like a lightbulb over your head, or shrieking out EUREKA at 2am and then scrambling for a notepad might be a little dramatic. But after two and a half years in the freelance game, I can definitely confirm that being instructed to sit in the same chair in the same office for 8 hours a day, surrounded by the same conversations and the same drab decor is not how you get the best out of a creative person.”
It’s about people with anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions which need a little flexibility. Goodness, it’s about people who just want to organise their lives the way they want to. As Eleanor Denton says, “it doesn’t always have to involve children and childcare and mad crazy dashes to pick children up… it can also be leaving the office early to watch a game of football that is important to you. Flexibility for all employees can have such a positive impact on employee engagement.” And web designer Dave Smyth agrees, adding “it’s difficult to put a price on having a flexible work schedule. A few years ago I considered applying for a full-time position and the question I came back to each time was: how much more would I need to be paid to commute and have no flexibility? The answer: quite a lot.”
So yes, flexible working benefits working mums, but it benefits so many more people than that when they’re given the opportunity. Anna Whitehouse talks about it as “a people issue and one that can change people’s lives/minds/health and, in turn, company’s bottom lines”. And while lots of employers have taken steps towards flexible working, not many yet have embraced it wholeheartedly, and too many haven’t even dipped a toe in the water.
How do we make flexible working a reality across workplaces?
The Future of Flex event covered this brilliantly. Right afterwards, I scribbled down some of the advice and experiences shared by the panel and the audience:
- Make your flexible working request. It might be turned down, but every request that’s made adds to the demand.
- Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t. You might be proposing that you work your hours differently, putting in some of your hours in the evening or the weekend. You might be suggesting that you work from home or from somewhere closer to home from time to time. What benefits does that bring, in comparison to being in the office?
- Focus on the business need. This is what managers are most likely to be looking at, so it’s a stronger argument than talking about how it will help you with your home life. It also shows that you’ve thought about the business and aren’t just prioritising your personal circumstances.
- Leave loudly at the end of the day. Don’t feel ashamed for arriving on time rather than two hours early, and walk out at the end of the day with your head held high rather than feeling you need to work late. We need to change the culture which says do you have to put in extra hours to be a good employee.
- Find allies. Whether they are sympathetic managers or people in a similar situation, you make more impact together.
- Work with your organisation, not against it. Being constructive and professional is likely to get you better results than being confrontational and antagonistic.
- Offer a trial period. Suggest working to the new pattern for a month, then reviewing with your managers, colleagues and maybe even your clients. They’re more likely to give it a go if there’s a clear chance to change it back if it’s not working.
- Challenge the fear of change. Anna Whitehouse says she’s “tired of hearing: ‘if we give you flexible working, it will open the floodgates to others asking for it.’ Why not open the floodgates? What’s the fear? UK employers are losing £10 billion a year in work-related stress. People are drowning behind the floodgates.”
I’m going to let the final words go to Natalie Moores and Liese Lord respectively, because they put their points across so very wisely:
“Maybe Einstein was right when he said ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’ … as companies who see the advantage in letting people approach a project with a fresh page are the ones that will ultimately stand out.” (Natalie)
“The sooner we ditch the ‘clock and bums on seat’ approach to management, the better. Managing flexible teams really does reap huge benefits… be brave and try it!!” (Liese)
Find out more about the people quoted in this post:
- Anna Whitehouse AKA Mother Pukka
- Liese Lord, The Lightbulb Tree
- Eleanor Denton, Flexible Working Mums Hertford
- Nat Moores, Mac and Moore
- Dave Smyth, Websmyth
- Jake Keane, copywriting, advertising, branding
- Gareth Hancock, That. Content. Shed.
- Jess Sizeland, Social Mama
- And, well, I didn’t quote myself, but if you like what you read you can find out about me, too.