When someone commented on my “tidy and uncomplicated career”, as apparently demonstrated by my LinkedIn profile, I was astonished. Whilst I was glad that my LinkedIn entries were giving a favourable impression, my life behind them was at various junctures full of twists and turns, some beneficial and others more challenging. That simple, casual aside caused me to ponder upon the role of flexibility in my own situation and the implications of flex for the workplace and society more widely.
How And Why Of Flex
“The trouble with this flexibility lark,” I was once advised, “is that it’s all about part-time for mothers.” Leaving the matter of whether flex employees merely “lark” around (we don’t), such a narrow view overlooks the myriad respects in which work and personal life can meld together. People want a variety of adaptable arrangements, regardless of their gender or parental status.
Although I switched to part-time after the birth of my son, before that I was full-time in varying formats – remotely from home, compressed hours and staggered start/finish. The motives for doing so ranged from fracturing my foot, caring for my father who was temporarily very unwell, undertaking voluntary activities that accorded with my values, and studying for a postgraduate qualification. There were also two instances when I took sabbaticals to be an expat spouse, accompanying my husband when he was posted abroad.
On each occasion that a dilemma arose, I worried that I would either have to discard the job I enjoyed or compromise on other equally important concerns. After all, we are more than our CVs. Fortunately, things were made easier by having a far-sighted employer who played the long game, coupled with a line manager who was a results-watcher rather than a time-and-motion monitor. When I asked my employer why there was such understanding and accommodation across the spectrum, not only for me but the majority of my colleagues, the HR specialist responded, “we get it back in spades.”
Flex For Life
Flexible working should not be confined to the trials and travails of one person – it affects all of us. With the pension age ever increasing, we are facing a career span of 50 years. With these demographics, is it really feasible to expect people to soldier on unremittingly with set-in-stone hours for half a century? This might be acceptable if life were akin to a pleasant amble on a beach but we know that, instead, events can crash upon us in huge waves and grab us in the undertow.
As a former Chair of a legal diversity organization, I saw the attrition rate of highly trained people who walked out for the sole reason that it was impossible to find a work pattern that suited their changing circumstances. It is a dismaying waste of talent. Sadly, in many cases, even relatively minor adjustments would have swung the pendulum in a more positive direction.
Through being a trustee of diversity and inclusion charities, I know that flexibility is required for all groups and at every stage of a person’s life. For example, grandparents need it to help care for grandchildren as much as a young person requires it for disability issues. And it is vital to remember that flex is not only an answer to difficult situations, such as dealing with illness, but is also a liberating response to optimistic aspirations, such as having more space for oneself or one’s interests.
Ripple Impact Of Flex
Should we really care whether Jill can log on from home once a week or whether Jack leaves early on Tuesdays and Thursdays? Actually, these seemingly innocuous changes have a startling domino effect. Such tweaks result in workers being motivated to continue in jobs that best utilise their talents, instead of seeking a new employer with the upheaval that brings. Oxford Economics, for example, has calculated that replacing a staff member can be as much as £30,000, taking into account factors such agency fees, advertising, interviewing, management time etc., with a major expense being the impact of disruption.
If Jill works remotely, this minimises commuting with the attendant extra cost, exhaustion and environmental pollution. Both Jack and Jill remain in gainful employment, paying the taxes that we need for schools and the NHS, and building up pensions for their long-term security. Through flex they gain a better work/life ratio and maintain their well-being, thus cutting down on sick days and medical visits. When flexibility keeps people in jobs, in health and in balance, the ripple effect means that we all win.
Reflecting on this, I rewrote my LinkedIn profile so as not to photo-shop out the significance of flex to me. Without it, I could not have engaged constructively with various aspects of my life cycle – family, health, education, volunteering, living abroad. Even worse, I might have abandoned the workplace altogether and become just another disillusioned statistic fallen by the professional wayside. This is why I advocate for others to have the advantages that I had and continue to enjoy.
Now is the time to flex and flex for all.