There has been a gradual shift in people’s attitudes to work over the past decades, catalysed by the impact of digital advances. While IT creates a myriad of flexible working opportunities, it also makes it harder to “leave work at the office”.
The public reaction to Daimler’s out of office last summer (“I am on vacation. I cannot read your email. Your email is being deleted.”) demonstrated quite how much people value the right to switch off during their spare time. It’s becoming increasingly clear that employers can’t have their cake and eat it when it comes to expecting both full-time presence in the office and responsiveness after hours and at the weekend.
We are seeing therefore a growing movement away from presenteeism in the workplace and a shift towards output, not hours in the office, as the measure of a job well done.
A new norm
This re-evaluation of a “normal” working structure has created further changes in its wake, creating a growing market for the infrastructure around and supply of flexible, agile and part-time working to give talented employees both an opportunity to work flexibly and still be valued.
The roll out in the UK this year of the government’s updated shared parental leave policy – giving parents the right to more control over how they organise their combined leave – is indicative of that quiet revolution underway. Whilst we will have to wait and see the impact and take-up of shared parental leave, it is an important first step, which re-emphasises the importance of allowing people to choose the ratio of time spent in the office and with their family that works for their situation.
There is growing recognition too by employers that staff who are happy in their work and home life and who have the choice to tailor their hours to what suits them, can offer more back to their companies with increased enthusiasm, productivity and perspective.
Richard Branson followed in Netflix’s footsteps last September and offered his personal staff the option to take off as much holiday as they want, when they want, arguing that as flexible working is making the 9 to 5 a thing of the past, then it should have the same impact on annual leave policy. And for each high-profile example in the media, confidence among employees to demand and create flexibility in the workplace grows.
However, for now, flexible working remains predominantly in the domain of deals struck by employees with their current employers.
There have been high profile cases of supporting women coming back to work after maternity leave with employees such as Vodafone being willing to offer mothers the opportunity to return to the same roles on a part time basis following maternity leave and accommodating their pregnancy within the role.
The case of Jen Psaki is a good example: Psaki had served in a number of communications roles within President Obama’s presidential terms and applied for the role of White House communications director; she was worried that once she disclosed that she was pregnant it would be the end of her application, but instead the White House awarded her the position and did everything they could to work around her needs.
But whilst this is a hugely positive reaction, Psaki had an existing relationship with her employer. She had proven her worth in a similar role already and so it was a low risk decision which the White House knew would pay off for them in the long run. Similarly, women are increasingly negotiating with their employers that their return to work is tailored around their new role as a mother, often pushing to work less than a full five-day week.
It’s fantastic progression that companies are starting to embrace parent-friendly working practices, but the real break-through will come when part time roles aren’t negotiated as a compromise to retain talent. There must be more opportunities for mothers who are equally as competent as Psaki and were in high-flying roles prior to maternity leave but who are entering the working world afresh following that career break.
Ultimately, advertising roles as flexible can attract a broader range of qualified candidates: freelancers who have chosen to adopt a portfolio career; those pursuing a personal passion – writing a novel, coaching, or volunteer work; and one of the largest untapped group of workers: parents raising young children. By recognising and opening up flexible talent, employers will start to tap into as yet hidden pools of talent and experience, creating value both for our society and our economy.