Demanding flexible working makes Emma Bartley feel sheepish. But maybe a shouty new campaign has the right idea...
Recently, I received a press release for a campaign called Hire Me My Way . “At the moment, more than half of all UK employees work part-time or flexibly, but when they look to apply for a new role, they are competing for less than one in ten advertised vacancies,” it said. The point of the campaign is to get employers to offer flexible working from Day One - trebling the number of quality part-time and flexible jobs on offer to one million by 2020.
As a working mother, I knew that this was a brilliant idea, but there was something about the branding that I found hard to take. Maybe I’m sensitised from spending too much time with toddlers, but wasn’t it a bit… shouty? Like, “Hire me MY way! I’ll do Mondays and NOT Tuesdays! That office is stupid, I want to work in my bedroom! But this contract isn’t blue, it was supposed to be blue so I could sign it with my red crayon! WHERE IS MY DADDYYYYYY?”
And yet, I realised, I’ve told at least one employer to hire me my way since becoming a mum. “Our hours are 9pm to 6pm,” said the HR lady when she offered me the position. “Sorry but I can only do 9pm to 5pm. I’ll be back on email later, and I’ll work on days when I’m not in, but I have to go at 5,” I told her. “Everyone else finishes at 6pm, why can’t you?” she wanted to know. I really wanted the job, I said, but this was a dealbreaker; I had to pick my daughter up at 5.30pm and take her home for bedtime. They hired me my way.
That should have been a happy ending, but the truth is a little more complicated. I liked the work, and it felt sort of glamorous to open up the laptop after my daughter had gone to bed and be dealing with people in New York or LA. I felt I was doing a good job in the hours I was there, working more efficiently than when I used to stay at work hours into the evening. But the boundaries weren’t clear, and I ended up doing more work outside of my normal hours than I was really comfortable with, trying to prove to my colleagues that I wasn’t a skiver.
They almost certainly didn’t notice, registering instead that I was continually late to the office, or missing a laptop cable (or something even more important, like make-up) after the chaotic nursery run. I felt sheepish and defensive at work, and couldn’t really enjoy the perfect hours I’d fought for.
Yet employers are, in my experience of writing about work and careers, more open than they’ve ever been to flexible working. Companies such as EY , which is backing Hire Me My Way, say that it helps them with diversity and inclusion and makes their businesses more agile. It’s important to note that this is not just about mums: the most forward-thinking are offering flexibility to all employees, whether they’re parents, doing elder care, or pursuing other interests outside of work.
Each time I speak to a business leader about this, I feel inspired and positive about my future at work. But so far it is quite a corporate phenomenon and understandably so: it’s easier to offer job shares, compressed hours or home working in a global bank than a small business. And while it’s all very well for directors to talk about changing cultures, they still have to cut through what Elizabeth Kelan, director of the Cranfield International Centre for Women Leaders, calls the “permafrost” of middle managers who aren’t as open to it.
One solution for those who need or want to work flexibly is to go self-employed, controlling your own hours and schedule. A few weeks ago Sheryl Sandberg, promoting a Facebook resource called She Means Business , suggested that women starting businesses was the way to "get more women sitting at the table". I'm very lucky to have that option, I realise, but it’s not a golden bullet either. There’s usually no support from colleagues; no reliable income; no sick pay; no maternity package.
What we definitely do not want is for mothers to keep dropping out of the workforce. It’s disastrous for equality and besides, we are productivity powerhouses. Anyone who starts their day changing a nappy with one hand while brushing a toddler’s teeth with the other, talking on a phone in the crook of their shoulder and maybe wriggling into some trousers is going to SAIL through anything the office might throw at them.
Not every job can be done flexibly but most can. I know mothers who are doing all kinds of different jobs in all kinds of different ways and making it work. Thinking of them, I realise that while I think the problem is colleagues who roll their eyes when someone takes time off to be with a sick child, it’s just as unhelpful for people like me to keep looking over our shoulders going, “Did Tiffany from HR just roll her eyes at me?”.
So perhaps Hire Me My Way is right to be bullish in its language. In fact, I might go further: in homage to a clever blog post I saw recently, the answer to “What should a mother do about work?” is simply “Whatever the f*** she wants”.