Trouble with ‘flexible working’ is it’s like ‘love’ – everyone has their own definition, which reflects their own interests. Employers want employees to be flexible to the needs and demands of the business, while employees want work to be flexible to the needs and demands of their lives – and the two often seem incompatible. That may be over-simplifying things. But there is a nugget of truth in it. How do we find our way out of this seemingly in-built conflict of interests? The answer is an age-old process, whose principles are so simple it’s surprising more businesses don’t follow them:
Too abstract? Let me illustrate:
Peter is smart, ambitious and good at his work. Rising through the ranks of management in his firm, he expects – with hard work and application – to make senior management within the next 3 years. He and his partner, Helen, also plan to have a family. They discuss this together, and both agree that it made the most sense for Helen to take the full maternity leave, and for Peter to continue working full time. Peter wants to be a dad, but he’s not really interested in babies. He’s looking forward to playing football and doing activities together. At work Peter volunteers, and is selected, to manage the development of a new product line – things are going really well, and the product is about to be launched. This, he hopes, will be his big leap forward career-wise.
Then Lauren arrives and everything changes. People at work congratulate him on becoming a dad, but they expect him to continue working flat out as he always has. Peter, however, is completely taken aback by how he feels about his new daughter; and how it churns him up when he has to return to work after his two weeks’ paternity leave. What’s more, Lauren has a medical condition, which means that Helen really struggles to manage on her own.
Just at the time when they need to be together as a family, Peter’s work needs him more than ever. He starts to feel anxious, and as the launch approaches, he begins to feel depressed: the new product line seems to be sucking all his time and energy away from his family. He knows these precious first weeks will never come again. When Peter confides in a colleague Mark about how he feels, Mark said “Well, you’ve got a right to request flexible working Peter, but I can’t see that going down very well in this place. The last manager who tried it left.” What should Peter do? “Well, it depends” you may say. And I would concur: decisions at work are never simply dependent upon individuals – they rest importantly upon work culture. Before advising Peter, we may ask:
Does the business have appropriate policies to anticipate the real life situations (children, sickness, bereavement, adult dependents, ageing) that affect most people?
Yes, it would have been great if Peter had realised how becoming a dad would affect him – but that’s not real life. If he decides to go to his boss and ask for a change to his working arrangements, what he really needs – and what the business needs in order to retain his skills in the longer term – is a ‘Yes’ to all six of the questions above.
At the Equality Academy, we take into account real people and their real lives. We look at the needs of the business and the needs of individuals. We always take diversity into consideration; and we help people find the win-win solution to the flexibility conundrum.