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The F Word

Last week Digital Mums launched a campaign calling to ‘Clean up the F-Word’ and stop flexible working being seen as a dirty word.

They reported that 7 in 10 UK employees want flexible work but over half fear it would be viewed negatively by their employer, and only 12% have actually asked for it. And this despite the fact since 2014, every employee in the UK with more than six months in their job has had the right to request flexible working.

The more I speak with people, the more apparent it is that real flexible work – the kind that works for men and women and enables people to do their jobs AND live a life they want and not feel intense anxiety about their work so that the only option is to do far more hours than they’re paid for, or give it up and jack in their jobs – seems to be few and far between.

I have a friend who works four days a week. Her boss, nervous to tell the rest of the team about the situation because they too might want flexibility or think it unfair, hasn’t told the team that she works four days. So when she gets a call on a Friday, when two of her children are with her, she has to either pretend not to be at the park with her kids (sure, mine are always silent when I’m on the phone) OR feel like a crap colleague that doesn’t answer. Even though she’s not actually supposed to be working and is not paid for that day.

Shit like this is so common, as is people working on their days off, or staying for the 5.30pm meeting and frantically pulling in favours for someone – anyone – to get their kid because they’re going to be late and that’s preferable to saying ‘sorry I can’t do that time I’m picking up my child’. Yet it perpetuates the problem. It’s flexible work that isn’t actually flexible because when we’re at work we’re trying to pretend we’re not humans with commitments outside of work. No sirree, we are FOCUSED and PRESENT. Except that anxiety and haste and juggling is crippling.

Employees are often grateful to be granted a part-time role – the gratitude somewhat misplaced when you factor in that they are only paid for those hours and in many cases, that saves the employer a load of money. They are probably also pulling in extra hours to show they’re up to the job and can make it work despite being part time, so actually come at quite a bargain price.

When I worked in an office, ‘working from home’ was seen as ‘skiving off’ and met with an eye roll from all the schmucks that had dragged their arses in.

Flexible working has negative connotations that stem from back when you weren’t permanently connected by smartphone and the VPN was often dodgy when you did work from home. Business no longer operates firmly between certain hours. There are certain jobs that require certain hours, but there are many, many more that don’t. The main barrier seeming to be ‘well, we don’t do it like that here’. Businesses haven’t quite caught up with how the world works now, but also how the people in it want to work.

And as long as this is seen as an issue for women only, and more specifically mothers, it isn’t going to work. First of all, we can’t expect the non-parent workforce to be behind us if only parents have access to flexible working. I’ve got kids and I can see that’s dogshit unfair. Even more important, it’s about men and women. If it’s always the mother who has to work flexibly with no support, and is restricted to a job between the hours of 9.30am-2.30pm because they have to fetch the kids from school, we’ll always be ‘lesser’ right?

A couple of years ago, Doug asked his boss if he could come in slightly later two mornings a week in order to take Buster to school. He works in the City, it’s very male-dominated and very few companies do flexible working; I have a number of female friends who worked in the city pre-kids and had to resign when they couldn’t make the juggle work when there was no leeway at all in their hours. I can’t emphasise enough the difference Doug doing those drop offs made. Not just for the additional hours I could put in to my job, but for his being part of our son’s school day. It also hugely helped our relationship. The reality is, if one of you is doing all the donkey work – and it is donkey work, with picks ups and remembering swimming bags and book bags and permission forms – and the other has no involvement, it builds resentment. Oh does it build resentment.

I’m encountering more and more examples in real life of people finding a flexible way of working that works for them – dads on drop off duty, paternity leave being taken, female breadwinners, women returning to work in a role with hours they actually want – but we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ve cracked it. Our ideologies around equality – at home and in work – are getting there, but it feels like we haven’t yet worked out how to make it work practically*. Most of us grew up with role models with very defined male and female roles and in many ways we still try to emulate them, but while also taking on our 21st Century ambitions and expectations. As a result we’re pretty confused, often resentful and spending the weekend rowing about who has it tougher when the truth is, we’re all knackered from the juggle.

I’m not going to wang on about how a happy workforce who feel their needs are heard makes for a committed and more productive workforce, or the amount of money lost to the economy because women are having to leave employment when they have children (please check out Mother Pukka’s Flex Appeal campaign). The bottom line is to make it work, it will be different for everyone. Some family units will work with a traditional set up, some will want to split it 50/50, some will find there are huge career sacrifices to be made with having children, some will go on to find a role that they feel more passionate about than anything they did before, and some simply won’t be able to make it work.

The point is, it depends on so many circumstances and that is why flexibility is so important. In order for us to make life work. It’s not about people wanting to work less hard, it’s finding a way to work that is compatible with modern life. Trying to balance a plethora of different circumstances is a massive challenge for business. But it is the only way to get the best out of the people that work for them.

Go here to sign the petition launched by Digital Mums; ‘To kick-start the societal shift in flexible working we want the government to clean up the F-word. The full current definition on the government’s website is: ”Flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, eg having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.” We think this definition should be changed to ‘work that works for employees and businesses’.

*The 2016 Modern Families Index found that men and women want a better balance with work and family life than previous generations, but in reality we more often revert to traditional gender roles to make it work.  

Pictures: istockphoto.com

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