Why flexible working is feminist working, and how to implement it in your org

Most companies now have initiatives to enable flexible working, but reality is often disappointing. For many women, the choice is to either be tired all the time, or take the hit to their pay and career opportunities (and get judged, either way). There is another way, and getting flexible working right can hugely benefit employers too.

By Angela Bradbury on 9th February 2018

These days, most companies have initiatives to enable flexible working, and celebrate it.  The right to request reduced hours was introduced in the UK in 2002, originally to help parents of small children, and has since been extended to anyone who has been with the same company for six months.

But unfortunately, reality is often disappointing.  “The work doesn’t reduce, just the hours you have to do the work in and the remuneration you receive for doing the work,” noted one respondent in a recent Bain study on flexible working - a sentiment that many of us will have felt ourselves or heard from colleagues at some point.

Even seeking flexibility can be damaging; in a forum for women in tech that I’m part of, someone recently asked how far through an interview process one should mention that they’d like to work a 4-day week rather than 5.  A lot of the advice from hiring managers, recruiters and people who’d made similar requests themselves in the past was not to be completely upfront about it straight away, as some employers may react negatively - better to wait until you’ve had the job offer, when you’ve proved you’re worth having that conversation with.

Unsurprisingly, these attitudes hurt women more than men, on average.  Research by several leading bodies has shown that working women still shoulder more of the burden of household chores than working men, and women are more likely to spend their free time caring for others than on leisure activities.  This means that women come under more pressure to sacrifice their careers in order to be seen as ‘good’ mothers, daughters to elderly parents, and wives.  For those who do try to stick it out, working mums are much more likely to be sleep-deprived than their childfree counterparts, and than working dads.

Not a great choice, is it?  Either be tired all the time, or take the hit to your pay and career opportunities.  Whatever choice you make, you’ll be judged for it.

There has to be a better way, and I believe that has to come from employers.  But what’s in it for them?  Getting flexible working right can hugely benefit companies, and here are three ways to do it:

(1) Part-time or freelance staff

There are lots of good reasons for people not to be full-time with a company: illness or disability, building a portfolio career or retraining in a new field, winding down to retirement, or having more leisure or travel time.

Regardless of the motivation for the worker, it can also come with significant upside for the employer: if you’re ramping up in a new geography, for instance, you may not have enough work for a full-time employee in that region, so starting with someone part-time or freelance means you don’t have to overinvest before you’re ready.  Having a significant portion of your workforce freelance also gives you the ability to flex your staff costs in line with company workloads, for example adding extra resource to cope with end-of-year deadlines, or reducing headcount during holiday periods.  We’ve benefitted from all of these at Chime, where most of our staff are part time or freelance - and we brought each of them on in that capacity in the first place.  

For those (still more often women than men) with significant amounts of unpaid labour to do at home, going down to part-time is the only way to remain in the workforce.  If women want to have the option of progressing in their careers either at the time or in the future, it’s crucial for them to keep their skills and professional connections refreshed; a recent PwC study showed that 3 in 5 women returners end up in lower skilled roles than the ones they held prior to their career breaks.

(2) Flexitime

This is the opposite of ‘face time’, where employees are expected to be at their desk for rigid (and often long) time periods.  There are, in fact, relatively few jobs where well-defined start and end times are really necessary - shift workers are the obvious exception, though even they are often asked for their preferences which may be incorporated into the rota.  For those of us with a more desk-based job, however, work done between the hours of 7-9am or 7-9pm is still work done, and no less valuable than if it had been completed during more traditional working hours.

Employers recognising this, and enabling more flexible working hours, can make a huge difference to those who have other time-inflexible commitments, for example the school run, or checking in on elderly relatives at certain times of day.  Without flexibility, many such carers (usually women) are forced to reduce their hours.  This can lead to increased financial dependence on their spouse, slower career progression and a less fulfilling professional life.

At Chime, we have staff distributed across time zones to cover work that needs to get done at different times of day.  It’s the responsibility of each individual staff member to attend to urgent matters on their plate, pass them on to another where necessary and get other things done within a reasonable timeframe.  And, in turn, they’re rewarded for results as well as their time.

(3) Remote working

A traditional office - a physical location where large numbers of employees would travel to at similar times in order to work together - used to be the only way to ensure employees were doing the work they were meant to, and were able to work with each other effectively.  Now technology has made alternatives possible.  Companies that manage to enable remote working benefit through reducing office space and other overheads, faster internationalization, and improving employee productivity and satisfaction.

There are lots of reasons a worker might prefer or need to work from home, and, again, these are problems faced by women more often than men: saving money on commuting and childcare; being close by to a frail relative in case of accidents; having relocated for their spouse’s job.  Offering remote working to employees enables women to keep their jobs, social ties and even identity through such huge personal life changes.

All of our staff at Chime work remotely, facilitated through technology that gives management oversight on progress of projects, instant messaging that get you a response quicker and less intrusively than walking over to someone's desk, and video-calling and screen-sharing software that can enable meetings to be just as effective, and often more efficient, than in-person.

A recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission highlighted flexible working as its primary recommendation to improve gender equality in the workplace, and called for all jobs to be advertised as flexible in order to tackle the pay imbalance between men and women.  With the benefits clear for both companies and employees, what are you waiting for?