Flexible Working, A guided Conversation
Updated: Feb 17
On Wednesday 24th June, AXIS Network welcomed the fabulous Mother Pukka Anna Whitehouse and (equally fabulous!) Mike Killeen to discuss *Flexible working: What leaders need to know to ensure they retain the best talent*, and we're still absorbing all the fantastic knowledge bombs dropped during the call!
The session was introduced by our chair, Karen Blanc, Director of Operations UK & Europe and facilitated by Emma Behjat, Business Development Manager. For those not familiar with our guests, Anna Whitehouse, the fabulous founder of Mother Pukka, the leader and figurehead of the UK's Flex Appeal campaign. Mike Killeen, VP of Operations for Serica Energy, sponsor for the event, is a role model and leading a flexible workforce, onshore and offshore.
Flex appeal began in a very primal maternal place. Anna spent 5-6 years of her life living in Amsterdam, where she had her first child. Upon returning to the UK, and the shift in how Anna was treated as a parent was extraordinary.
In Amsterdam, parents are essentially not allowed to return to go back full time, raising the next generation is seen as a full-time job. You’re also assigned a maternity nurse for those first crucial 10 days, to softly transition you in and invest in your mental health as a new parent. The belief is, the costs spent at such a pivotal time, is saved later on.
In London on the other hand, Anna and her husband called it “running the gauntlet”. After being denied a flexible work request (rejected for potentially opening the flood gate – the request was to start and leave 15 minutes early), Anna would leave work at 4:59 PM get to nursery pick up, always six minutes late, where her child was the last one, crying, making Anna upset…And it was through this incredibly tough time and trying to find a solution that Anna had her lightbulb moment – this wasn’t her fault.
“The 9:00 to 5:00 is barbaric…I think one day we will look back at nine-to-five in a similar way to how we see child labour in the 19th century” ~ Douglas Coupland, March 2017
Ultimately, flexible working is about cold hard cash, which is often missing from the conversation. Offering flexible working is about people opening up those floodgates to a sway of talent. Talent that can build your business, it’s more than flexible working, it is inclusive working and evolution, not revolution; evolution in a digital world that is willing and ready.
Having flexible working options isn’t just for mothers, fathers often also want flexible working but the perception that men wishing to look after their own child is seen as emasculating, which is a huge turn-off. As you include more people in the discussions, you find people wanting to pursue their hobbies, their side hustle, their studies, look after their mental health; irrespective of whether they have children. How can companies not benefit from a happier, more balanced workforce? What is the fear? Flexible working isn’t a maternal campaign. It’s an inclusive campaign, it’s a human campaign, with humans at the center of your business for the benefit of business.
For Mike, lockdown gave him the opportunity to see more of his children, and his children him, all parties seemed to like it! This benefit is recognised by many. Mike Killeen used his newfound perspective to open the conversation with his employees, what barriers do we want to break down and not reintroduce? How do we build upon it?
We saw with the pandemic, when cold hard cash was at stake, companies found it possible to work remotely and embrace technology. Whilst the pandemic humanised our CEOs, leader’s and teams, we know that from past pandemics (SARs, Ebola) women’s equality goes backwards. Whilst this passed knowledge hasn’t helped the progression for women in this case, it has levelled the playing field in terms of who is able to get access to part-time and flexible work. More men are stepping up and pushing against the emasculating narrative, but there is a lot of work to do with one in ten flexible working requests approved for men, four in ten flexible working requests approved for women.
An important narrative throughout the conversation was around the use of language. Anna shared an anecdote from her father who expressed the idea of job-sharing demeans the effort involved – it implies part-time is part-effort, lower cost, whereas; job-pairing, is about pairing two brilliant minds, getting two for the price of one. This topic shifted to offshore working - with one of the most regulated jobs in the country being, you guessed it, job pairing. OIM’s rotate and they’re not the same person they have their own styles, approaches and strengths. This is a successful approach. If job-pairing can take place hundreds of miles away on a platform, without a face-to-face handover, job-pairing in the “office” can be achieved.
The argument of flexible working goes beyond the binary – it’s not a “all-office, or all-home” situation. Flexible working has been in place for years, but “it’s been one-way traffic in favour of the employer” according to Anna’s research, with on average 468 hours of unpaid overtime per year as employees. This puts us, in the UK, in a particular juxtaposition compared to our European counterparts, and more aligned with our American counterparts. Anna shared an anecdote from her time working for a leading fashion brand and the London and New York offices called “an urgent meeting for 7pm on a Wednesday” to which her boss responded, “it’s just shoes, it can wait until the morning”. There are moments to ask employees to lean in and step up, but have we created a false economy of urgencies to get the most back for the employer’s buck?
Mike reflected on one of his past experiences where people returned to work seeking part-time, which was approved and were made aware that there may be occasional evening or weekend working, so they paid them for additional hours to cover it e.g., 3-days working, pay was for 3.5-4 days, the individuals know they’re going to get phone calls, and the business knows they’ll have the support they need, when it’s needed. It is a win-win. It’s important to recognize and reward people for going above and beyond, rather than resentment building. That’s a huge contributor to the Great Resignation.
Understanding what motivates and grinds employees was Mike’s advice, make it about the people and you’ll see productivity increase. This is a big differentiating factor for smaller businesses who can’t offer the high pay or the global travel of their Tier 1 competitors.
For flexible working to be successful, you need to hire the right people, and rushed or bad recruitment can set back confidence and impact productivity. Anna described flexible working as still being treated as this underground movement, where candidates and employees assume that flexibility might be approved, but reticent of the impact that this might have on their careers. Few companies show real case examples of flexible working in their company. One that does showcase a variety of individuals (not just working mums) is Deloitte. Leaders need to be honest about the benefits and disadvantageous they faced in the pandemic, to open the conversation with their employees. Transparency is key.
Employers need to recognise that things have changed in the pandemic. Other halves have taken up roles, people have potentially moved or looking to move to make their lives easier. When we are in the office, we need to leave loudly. Lead by example, remind people that there is a balance to be had. By listening to and engaging with your employees, developing their careers around flexibility of their workday is a way to retain your talent.
We need to acknowledge that this is tough for managers, and tough for CEOs. We’re in a transition period – we’re all learning. It might be that candidates need to showcase their talents, before engaging conversation regarding flexible working. Ultimately, if the employer wants to proceed, they’ll make it work. It’s still a power dynamic.
Culture is often the question on everyone’s lips, how do you drive culture if you’re remote? Lego may have a solution. Anna shared how they ditched their office space and created three zones with dedicated teams. The ground floor was creativity, middle floor culture and top floor for silent work. They would have conversations like “will we meet on day x, on the silent floor and graft on this?” It’s a different way to look at this, and we need to look at our environment and build back different.
This isn’t just a private sector problem, there are lessons to be learned from the public sector. For instance, Anna shared an example from the Birmingham Women’s Hospital ward where they empowered the whole team to discuss and develop a roster. Consequently, there were fewer deaths on wards that were run flexibly. Whilst the private sector may need to see the money, the fact is the benefits are grounded within humans, the financial uptick is just a bonus.
Writing this up from our notes and transcript, we’re reminded how truly magically this event was. We’d like to thank our speakers, Anna & Mike for an insightful session, and thanks Serica Energy for sponsoring.
The recording is available until 31st July. Watch it here.