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So, my aspiration is to work in a blissful state of serenity on the beach like the lucky *** in the photo. The reality is that I’m at my dining room table, fighting off the cat, who just fyi only shows me attention if there is absolutely no one else available. This week’s coffee blog is on the topic of flexible working or the need for organisations to start looking flexibility as a key organisation design principle, rather than as something they ‘offer’ to comply with legislation. The bee in my ‘flexible working’ bonnet was resurrected last night, as I stumbled upon my MSc thesis of many moons ago on the topic of ‘The Paradox of Choice: Women’s Career Choices and Flexible Working.’ Or something like that. In a nutshell, women I interviewed who had left the workplace to have children, struggled to retain their careers following time out for maternity leave. They couldn’t find part-time roles within their field, and childcare provision wasn’t sufficiently flexible nor affordable to support them. Fast-forward a number of years since that postgrad research project, and so-called ‘family friendly’ policies at work haven’t really shifted the status quo very far. Women continue to struggle to find stretching part-time roles and we continue to have fewer women than men in senior roles. Part time roles are rarely advertised and it’s commonplace to have to earn your stripes as a full-time person before requesting part-time hours. When a part-time role is advertised, it’s often at a junior level, or at a reduced pay scale that doesn’t make it a hugely attractive option. Maddening stuff. And breathe…
The 40-hour week is so passé
It is equally maddening that a 35-40 hour working week is still seen as the standard working practice in this day and age. Many writers, researchers, and other folk have lauded the benefits of moving away from a 40-hour working week, or what is often referred to as ‘full-time’. There was a brilliant article written in the Autumn by Journalist, Owen Jones, on this very topic. I won’t attempt to rival his journalistic prowess or research on the topic, but in short, Owen argues that the 40hr week is outdated and a 4-day week would result in greater productivity and greater well-being for us all. Have a read here I’d love us all to move to a 4-day week, but I think the world of work is set to change beyond fixed days and ‘standard hours’. Or, at least I hope it is.
In the meantime, the fact remains that most organisations stick with a 35-40hr week. Beyond working hours, we offer some flexibility to some groups on the basis of when and where they work these hours. Many organisations continue to play around the edges of flexible working. The majority of jobs advertised continue to be full-time, with job-sharing sometimes thrown in as a sort of radical move. Flexibility should be core design principle in organisation design, and therefore a core part of our business and working practices. Flexible working as a ‘family friendly policy’ or a form that someone fills in if they have the legislative right to do so is quite frankly, passe.
I read some career advice on a reputable careers board earlier…’Although there can be a stigma associated with flexible work, this is reducing as more and more people are honest about it.’ Is it acceptable to use the acronym OMG in blogs? (Or indeed, at all?). All this time, I’ve been telling friends and colleagues I’m part-time, without realising just how brave I’m being in doing so. We don’t need to hide being part-time. I’m still the same person, whether 5 days a week or 3 days a week. A ‘yes’ to flexible working isn’t a badge of good behaviour or a reward; it’s recognition of the fact that contribution can’t be reliably measured in terms of hours spent with your bum on a seat at work. Though I fully respect it’s potentially easier to calculate and compensate hours worked.
I love this quote from Gaby Hinsliff in her book Half a Wife:
“The belief that bums on seats equals profitability is as hopelessly ill-adapted to computerised, knowledge-based industries as horses were to warfare in the age of the tank.”
The paradox of choice, and a shift to measuring contribution not hours
I wrote one of my Masters theses on the paradox of choice in women’s careers, particularly at the point of returning to work post maternity leave if they have children. This was nearly ten years ago now, but sadly the research still rings true. Apparently, women have a ‘choice’ whether they return to work, but in reality this is hugely simplistic. My personal choice wouldn’t have been ‘work’ or ‘don’t work’, it would have been ‘work’ or ‘don’t work and move house quickly because your mortgage is really big’. Childcare funding is incredibly useful but childcare itself rarely allows for much more than a 30min commute either side of work, and pegging it to the nursery just before they fine you. We’re sometimes offered ‘flexibility’ in terms of days worked, without respecting that the length of each day is an enormous factor to contend with. I was hugely fortunate to find NPL, who are not only a lovely, talented bunch of people, but have an on-site crèche. Gold-dust for working parents.
In my eyes, true progress in retaining talented women in the workforce will be achieved when we consider roles in terms of what they contribute, and the outcomes they achieve, rather than the number of hours that a person’s bum is on a seat. When I realised I could no longer run down London’s train platforms with my Childminder on speed dial to say I was running late, I looked for local part-time roles. I applied for full-time roles, as I knew I could do them, and I don’t believe many roles need to be full-time. In my view, this is often unimaginative resourcing (at the strategic level, not on the shoulders of the Recruitment team). Instead of wondering, ‘Could we make this role part-time?’, why can’t we start with more interesting questions such as, ‘What level of contribution are we looking for from this role? Could that contribution be made by two people in a job share? Could we envisage someone achieving X in 3 days with home-working thrown in?’ The default is always 5 days a week. Even Owen Jones’ aspired 4-day week isn’t good enough. I want people to be empowered to seek the working pattern that best meets their personal and career aspirations, and provides the required contribution to the business.
Flexibility requires systemic change
Of course, embedding truly flexible working practices is not as easy as a quick change of policy. As mentioned, it’ll likely require a more dynamic resourcing model, perhaps a review of the governance and decision-making processes within the organisation, and most certainly some new ways of working to support strong contracting, strong team communication and trust, and accountability.
It requires buy-in from senior leadership, and a shift in the power dynamic – viewing employees as valued contributors, rather than as ‘resources’ who are owned for a length of time during the week. It also requires new management practices that foster trust at the organisation, team and individual level.
I’ve moved into self-employment now, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to work with a variety of organisations to support with cultural change, development programmes and coaching of staff. I don’t expect this to equate to less hours, as I’m so eager to make a difference with my work that I know I’ll keep very busy. It’s certainly more flexible though. I’d like to see a shift toward a future of work where this is achievable for everyone.
Thanks for reading. You can find out more about me and my work at https://heartsparks.co.uk or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org