Is making all jobs flexible realistic?

by Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 24 Aug 2017

Fact: fewer than 1 in 10 job adverts mention flexible working.

More facts: 8.7 million full-time workers want flexible arrangements, 1.5 million part-time workers say they are trapped in poorly paid part-time jobs, and a further 400,000 are unable to work non-flexibly.

Conclusion: organisations offering flexible working will attract more and better talent. In fact, international law firm Addleshaw Goddard said that flexibility was “one of the most important factors in terms of retaining women”. 

It was not ever thus. I started off my career in a City law firm. This was nearly thirty years ago, and it was reasonably easy to work flexibly – but not, of course, as a practising lawyer. Colleagues left to have babies and came back with the glow and exhaustion of motherhood to work in the firm’s legal information division two days a week – supporting the real lawyers. 

I left when I was pregnant with my first child and then proceeded to have four children in five years. When it came to going back to work, with my youngest only two, full-time work felt out of reach. I considered a range of options, including teaching law (not really what I wanted to do) and going back to private practice (where it was clear that I wouldn’t have my own clients).

I ended up working in the Government Legal Service (now the Government Legal Department) to whom I will always be eternally grateful. I worked three days a week, then four days a week and then, when my youngest started full-time at school, five days a week with one day a week from home. During that time, I advised on bills going through Parliament and worked direct to ministers. I was the first civil lawyer to work part-time for the Attorney General and I was really proud of the time I had to speak to Peter Goldsmith on the phone on a Friday afternoon, whilst looking after a sick child.

They compromised and I compromised, and all the time I heard stories about friends who weren’t allowed their own clients in the private sector because clients demanded access to lawyers 24/7. Thanks to the understanding of ministers and the support of line managers, my hours were never a problem for Her Majesty’s Government. Flexible working (as we say in our report, published last week) must be based on mutual trust and responsibility. Get the right behaviours in place, remember that culture spreads from the top, and the rest follows.

Allowing senior roles to be filled flexibly sends a powerful message. More than a decade on I am still working one day a week from home as the CEO of a significant national public sector body (which would never have been possible without the years of part-time work).

Three years ago I started fostering and in many ways taking on a new daughter involved the same level of calls on my time as having small children – meetings with social workers and schools and going before relevant panels. Working flexibly became important all over again, and at a much more senior level. In my current role, I frequently appear before select committees, give television and radio interviews, attend board meetings, meet stakeholders, give talks and chair internal meetings – and that doesn’t include my commitments as a non-executive director of another public body. None of this has ever presented a problem. 

In the retail sector, companies such as Pets At Home (who focus on investment in their staff and building a talent pipeline) and John Lewis demonstrate that flexible working doesn’t present a problem either. There are also fantastic examples in manufacturing (Ford) and banking (Lloyds Banking Group, who run a shared parental leave scheme and a job-share register). The NHS is on the way to joining them. In the IT sector, Mark Zuckerberg (who seems by all accounts to have a pretty senior role) announced this week he is taking two months of paternity leave this year.

And if you want to look at a whole country, the Scandinavians are leading the way here, with lower working hours across Sweden and yet higher profits and lower staff turnover. Less than 1% of Swedes work a 50 hour week. The country seems to be doing well on it.

Flexible working, of course, includes a range of models: part-time, home working, compressed hours. We wouldn’t argue that there is a form of flexible working for every single job in the world, but surely the default position is that there is? Even for small businesses our research found that it increased motivation and productivity, whilst increasing the options for both partners to take equal responsibility for childcare will enable some employees to return to work earlier. And we say that parental leave should be publically funded, exactly as maternity leave is, so that the burden doesn’t fall on the business.

Capgemini are working to improve flexibility in order to increase the number of women in senior roles. PageGroup said to us: “The most transformative step we have taken is to create a Dynamic Working framework, which allows employees at all levels to work better and smarter by improving their work-life balance.”

So it’s just not an excuse to say ‘it wouldn’t work here’. The stakes are too high. We need to challenge ourselves and ask the difficult questions. And we need to give our daughters a chance, and not consign them to a lesser pathway.

I am enormously proud of what my daughter has achieved in the past three years and believe passionately that society needs to support families to help the vulnerable in our community. This needs to be more than just words and it cannot be at the cost of meaningful careers or we will be stuck in a vicious cycle.

I really hope my daughter achieves her dream to be a lawyer, and I hope all her hard work won’t be for nothing when she has children of her own.