Leadership and career development People and culture

It's time to banish the 'flexibility stigma'

Frances Lang newly appointed CEO of Variety the Children's Charity, discusses her experiences of flexible working and how this has interacted with her career – and gives some tips on how your organisation can work towards a flexible working culture.

Five years ago, I made the decision to move into the charity sector. I was a partner of a private equity business. I loved the small team I worked with but I knew that something was missing and that something was passion. So, off I went in search of a role with an inspirational charity.

The very first person I spoke to as I embarked on my quest was Kai Adams, a partner specialising in non-profit recruitment at Green Park. Kai asked me to run through my career to date. Since having my first child nearly 19 years ago, I have worked in a various ways that fitted around my ever-evolving family life. Permanent, interim, part-time, full-time, office based and working remotely plus the odd career break. I was overly focused on explaining this.

Kai didn’t spend too long listening before holding up his hand and saying, ‘Can I stop you there for a moment. Why do you sound so defensive about your career? You should be confidently explaining that you are currently a partner of a private equity business and that you have worked successfully in a variety of different senior roles in a variety of sectors and countries. If you must, you can say that since having children you have worked in a variety of different ways. End of story.’

This was a lightbulb moment for me. Although I remember thinking that he had used the word ‘variety’ a lot!

Since then, I have become more vocal about both the need to accommodate flexible working to avoid mind-boggling levels of untapped potential, and the need for those who have been successful while working flexibly to shout this from the rooftops to encourage others. Flexible working needs to be normalised.

Su-Mei Thompson, the CEO of Media Trust, agrees. She urges senior women to advertise that their careers have not been linear and not to airbrush out a career break from their CV or from their conversations with others. It is so important for women to know that they can take a break and still come back to a successful career. And clearly, in 2018, flexible working should not be confined to women with children.

I am delighted that much has changed since I first tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate flexible working in 1999. I now know that there are almost always creative ways around this, particularly with ever-evolving technological solutions. Also, where a full-time physical presence is truly critical, there are other options such as job-sharing.

Nearly 20 years later there is increasing recognition that working flexibly doesn’t mean you are any less driven. The Power Part Time Top 50 is a wonderful testament to this.

There is, however, more to be done. A recent survey by Deloitte with Timewise, a recruitment consultancy specialising in part-time work, found that 30% of flexible workers felt they were regarded as less important and 25% said they were given fewer opportunities than those who worked conventional hours. 25% believed they had missed out on promotion.

In the past, I have accepted roles where I have compromised enormously on salary in exchange for flexibility. This has to stop.

Provided we all have clear objectives and are judged on what we deliver, the where and the when of how we deliver is less important. The full time equivalent salary should never be lower in exchange for this flexibility.

Trust is critical, it should not have to be earned, it should be presumed. The flip side is that trust can be lost if it is abused; but it is also something which can be regained.

I don’t, however, advocate a free for all with everyone working where and when they want at all times. Much collaboration and creativity relies on people coming together in person on a regular basis. Strong working relationships are critical to a team’s success and these are built more easily with face-to-face interactions. While few studies suggest that remote working means people are more likely to slack, many conclude that productive collaborations are much harder to achieve.

Repeated studies that rank economies by average hours worked and average productivity show that average hours worked in the UK are higher than many of our competitors but without a corresponding higher level of productivity. Germany, for example, has a shorter average working week and yet higher productivity.

Presenteeism is an issue in the UK. Some people confuse being first at their desk in the morning and last to leave with being the most productive. I’ll say it again, judge people by what they deliver.

I know from experience that when working less than full-time, I worked hard from the moment I arrived at work. I was also driven to find ways of making my working hours really count.

Organisations should focus on creating environments where staff can fulfil their potential and deliver what is needed regardless of their contracted working hours or the need to work remotely at times. A manager should be like a coach, providing ongoing feedback to address issues and to recognise achievements and successes as they arise. Never leave all this to an annual appraisal.

Create an environment where the staff enjoy what they do, where there is a common purpose and shared values combined with clear objectives. Leave people to be self-determining but able to ask for help and collaboration when they need it. Get this right and you won’t need to worry that someone isn’t working just because you can’t see them at their desk today.

So, create the right environment. Judgepeople by what they deliver. Banish the‘flexibility stigma’ once and for all.

This article was originally published in our monthly members' magazine, Finance Focus July 2018. If you would like to receive content like this on a monthly basis contact us to find out more about membership.

This post was last reviewed on 1 November 2018 at 13:12
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