This morning we held our second event for the Big Conversation on Families, Parents and the Workplace. One of our conversations was all about flexible working – the challenge, the barriers and the potential solutions.
We addressed four questions:
- What is our ideal situation?
- What gets in the way of progress now?
- What works well today?
- What can we do to drive real change?
Here is the output from that conversation.
Our ideal situation is one where no one feels afraid to ask for flexible working. Where flexible working doesn’t impact your ability to get promoted. Where flexible working isn’t put into boxes (part time, term time and so on) but solutions are tailored to the individual and the unique circumstances and contexts. Where there is no stigma to working flexibly. And finally, organisations getting their head around the fact that this is how people want to work today.
We were agreed on what gets in the way. Outdated stereotypes and assumptions. Presenteeism; the assumption that if someone is at their desk they are working. A failure to advertise jobs as flexible. Rigid policies. A lack of trust. The 26 week right to request waiting period. Starting from a position of no rather than looking at how to get to a yes. A lack of role models, especially at a senior level. Negative perceptions of managers, casting a shadow across the organisations.
Some have stuff that is working well today. Some organisations that have successfully challenged traditional long hours culture by embracing flexibility – and finding it key to attracting and retaining talent. Others are providing the relevant technology to work anywhere and any when. Some are training managers on making flexible working work at their place.
But there is more we need to do.
We need to move flexible working out of the family friendly rights discourse and see it instead as being an issue of inclusion and talent. A truly inclusive organisation will embrace all forms of working. For all our talk about employee engagement, wars for talent and so on, many organisations fail to see that flexibility could be key drivers in attraction, retention and engagement. Failing to offer flexible working is absolutely limiting your talent pool.
It is time to change the lens.
There were other practical ideas. Sharing what is working well internally. Finding the role models and telling their story. Activity encouraging paternity leave – and offering better than statutory pay rates in order to do just that. Educating line managers, not only on the benefits of flexibility, but also how to manage teams that work flexibly and remotely. One attendee talked about making a song and dance about your family commitments – not just quietly disappearing to the parents evening or nativity play like it is something to apologise for.
There was one final point that stood out for me during the conversation that has made me think, and continues to do so. This was the extent to which those working flexibly, especially those who work from home, find themselves subject to allegedly light-hearted jokes or negative comments (it’s just banter….). I once worked in an organisation where the common way to refer to a day working from home was ‘I’m watching Jeremy Kyle’. There was even a joke about employee’s watching Homes Under the Hammer at a session I attended at the conference. I also know, mostly men, who have been subject to a snide comment about leaving early or arriving late because they have done the school run. Comments of the type that I don’t believe are made to women with the same regularity. Why? Because it is more socially acceptable for the woman to be doing that stuff. It might seem like a small thing perhaps, but language matters. Jokes matter. And what we feel we can joke about, tells its own story.
We talked a lot in the session about the role of HR in challenging negative stereotypes. The role of HR in crafting the right policies, guidance and training, but also coaching managers in thinking differently. It is the role of HR to challenge when we need to. Challenge those who default ‘no’ to this stuff. Challenge those who say no because they are fearful, inflexible, or just don’t know how to manage any differently. Challenge lazy thinking.
Perhaps too, we should be challenging the jokes and the language at the same time.