There’s a revolution afoot in the workplace, or rather out of it. Flexi-hours are no longer the preserve of parents, but women of all circumstances wanting a better work/life balance. Polly Dunbar reports...
Most of us know know how it feels to be driven to the point of burnout by 12-hour days, urgent emails 24/7 and managers who specialise in unrealistic expectations. And how to balance demanding jobs with having a life is the nirvana we’re all striving for. For some, flexible working hours are the answer. But this in itself is controversial. The reality is that flexible working – whether part-time, working remotely, job-sharing or ‘irregular’ hours – has, for myriad reasons, mostly been the preserve of working mothers. And for the colleagues left behind in the office? An often unspoken yet simmering sense of injustice.
But what if working flexibly was something we could all do, regardless of our circumstances, thereby removing these work-based tensions between those with children and those without? What if we could choose when and where we work, and for how long; if we could fit our careers around our lives, rather than trying to carve slivers of time for ourselves from days dominated by our jobs? Wouldn’t it transform the way we feel about work? Wouldn’t it transform the way we feel full stop? And what if men did it too? Wouldn’t it level the playing field for everyone when it comes to promotions? In fact, since 2014, all British employees who’ve worked with a company for more than six months have been legally entitled to request flexible working (and a 2015 survey by flexibility experts Timewise found that 14.1 million of us would like to work flexibly). Now, as growing numbers embrace the benefits of breaking free from the traditional working week, a universal flexi-working movement is exploding.
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‘There’s a revolution starting,’ says career coach Gemma McCrae of Prosperity Kitchen. ‘We’re all realising that our lives have become more and more stressful, with technology meaning we’re contactable at any time. Many people are aware they have no work-life balance and want to restore it. They want time for themselves, whether that’s to follow a passion, spend more time with loved ones or just to relax more. Companies are starting to realise that flexible working is great for them, too. It improves their staff’s mental health and motivation and decreases the number of sick days taken.’
Among the leading flexible-working crusaders is Anna Whitehouse, aka blogger Mother Pukka. Her campaign Flex Appeal began as a means of tackling the discrimination against mothers in the workplace, but is now a call to action for anybody whose life would be enhanced by flexible working policies to lobby firms to put them into practice. As she says, ‘We’re pushing for someone to be judged on their ability to produce good work, not sit on a chair past 6pm.’
She adds, ‘Life’s messy and whether you are a mum, dad, carer or someone who just needs Friday mornings off to slap some paint on a canvas, flexible working is about getting the best from each individual.’
And from City law and banking firms to the public sector, employers are beginning to take heed. ‘Increasing numbers of employers are taking requests seriously – as they should,’ says Gemma.
Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development shows that 65 percent of flexible workers are satisfied with their work-life balance, compared to 47 percent who don’t work flexibly. Another survey by workplace provider Regus showed that 81 percent of senior managers believe flexible working increases productivity, while three in five people who work flexibly say they actually put in more hours, because it’s more convenient to do so.
Working four days a week has been life-changing. I've never been so efficient.
Sophie Muller used to work such long, punishing hours as an advertising agency exec that she was constantly exhausted, stressed and miserable. When her boss, a woman with children, left earlier than her every day, Sophie, 33, would take on her tasks, too, until she felt as though she was drowning under the weight of all the work. ‘I started to think, “Why do you have to be a mother to have a work-life balance?” That doesn’t seem fair.’
Never considering that she might be entitled to similar rights to her colleagues with children, she was so miserable she considered leaving the industry she loved. ‘I was chatting to someone I knew who ran another agency and told him I was quitting,’ she says. ‘He told me to come and talk to him, so I did. I explained I wanted time to pursue my love for art and he offered me a job four days a week.’
Not everyone can afford to work part-time, but Sophie would have been given a pay rise if she’d worked full-time in the new job at the advertising agency Havas, so ‘I’m earning the same as I did before but doing four days,’ she says. On Fridays, Sophie takes a five-hour art class. ‘It’s been life-changing. Friday is my favourite day of the week. I completely switch off from work and use my brain in a totally different way.’ Her new arrangement has also renewed her enthusiasm for her career. ‘Because I have three days away from work, instead of two, on a Monday morning I’m ready to go back. I’ve never been so efficient, because I’m not tired and unhappy. It’s reminded me how much I love my career.’
Equally enthusiastic about flexi-working is Marika Tozer, 34, a teacher at Bickley Park school in Bromley, who has been working part-time for over two years. She spends one day a week doing charity work, including for a mother and baby group and a youth drop-in centre. ‘When I approached the headmaster to ask if I could work four days a week, he wasn’t sure initially, but he said yes when I explained how passionate I was about charity work. He realised I’d be a positive role model for the children,’ she says. ‘I love teaching and I’d never want to give that up, but it’s also really rewarding giving my time to other people who really appreciate it. My life feels as though it has more variety, and it’s liberating, because it’s my choice.’
Of course, employers can still refuse to grant requests for flexible working. ‘But they should give genuine business reasons for why your request wouldn’t work, for example, if it meant the company wouldn’t be able to meet the demands of its clients, or it would be too expensive to employ someone to fill the gaps,’ says Alex Christen, employment lawyer at Capital Law. She advises giving the employer as much information as possible to make your request compelling. ‘Think of how your request will work for your employer and suggest ways potential issues for the business could be addressed.’
Workplace culture can take a long time to change, and there remains a stigma attached to working flexibly – an assumption employees aren’t dedicated unless they’re the last person to leave the office at night. But as more of us ask for it, it seems those negative associations could become a thing of the past. ‘I think flexible working is going to become more and more normal, as people realise its benefits,’ says Gemma McCrae.
With more people feeling they’re giving too much to their work and not enough to themselves, suffering stress and anxiety as a result, finding a new way of working which works for us is surely something we should all aspire to.
Join Mother Pukka’s Flex Appeal campaign at motherpukka.co.uk/flexible-working/flex-you-fools