(Gratuitous photo of sunny day outdoor working last year, have high hopes for this year)
A few weeks ago I attended The New Work’s “Embracing Flexibility” event. It is one of the few work events I’ve been to that has had such a female dominated audience, which is unsurprising if you consider how important the question of flexible working can be for working mothers. At first I felt a bit of a fraud, being a childless female who craves flexibility for my own ‘selfish’ reasons, but that feeling was quickly dispelled. In fact, if anything the event reinforced the idea that it shouldn’t matter why you want to work flexibly (so any men reading this post who are attracted to the idea of flexible working, please do check out what The New Work are doing). The weight for making a case for flexible working has historically sat too heavily on the employee requesting it. I found it really refreshing to be part of discussions around the fact flexible working should be reason agnostic and that it should sit with the company to prove why it wouldn’t work (vs the employee building a business case for how they would make it work for the company). It would help dispel the sense that flexible working is some kind of special consideration for employees, done at the employer’s expense.
In my view the employee reward/employer compromise mindset is one of the key stumbling blocks preventing flexible working from being embraced. If employees are made to feel as if they are going begging bowl in hand to ask for flexibility in how they work, that is going to bring a lot of uncomfortable emotional baggage into the experience. And as I chatted to people at the event, it became clear to me that there are a lot of murky emotions connected with flexible working: ranging from the fear of asking for it, to the sense of colleague judgement among those already working flexibly.
Trust is a word I heard used a lot, but what made it particularly interesting was the perspective that the trust needs to flow both ways. If you’d asked me “what is the trust issue surrounding flexible working?” my default answer would have been “trusting employees to get the work done to a high standard”. Instead the question of trust was turned on its head, as Dee Gosney from HSBC talked about being challenged by her boss to trust her to find a way to make it work.
This was a bit of a eureka moment for me. It got to the heart of what I suspect is the biggest emotional hurdle most prospective flexible workers face, which is a sense of vulnerability. Until flexible working is normalised, and managers are taught how to speak with their employees about it, the employees who wants to explore flexible working options are going to be under a great deal of pressure to justify why they are worth making an exception for. For too many, this can mean that they never make their case, leaving them struggling with the status quo.
The above post is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of both the issue and what was discussed at the event. As I tend to think about flexible working through the lens of the benefits it could bring to those struggling with mental health issues, I picked up on a lot of the related emotions that could create an insurmountable barrier for someone who is already in a fragile state.
However, there was a lot more discussed. For a more detailed overview of the speakers and the outputs from the event, I highly recommend going to The New Work’s site: https://www.thenewwork.co.uk/single-post/2018/04/29/Embracing-Flexibility—the-outputs