We have the evidence that more people want ‘flexible’ working than are currently able to access it. We also know that for many people flexibility apparently lies in the possibility of working remotely and during non-standard hours. On the face of it, lockdown has created these circumstances and demonstrated to employers this type of working arrangement is likely to succeed. Some pundits are already proclaiming a post pandemic ‘new normal’ where home working and flexible hours become more widespread. Others choose to disagree, suggesting employers have embraced homeworking as a temporary ‘necessary evil’ and will want a reversion to previous working arrangements as soon as permissible.
It’s an interesting debate that currently fills many pages of the internet; but it also misses the point. Extending current arrangements does little more than support #AlwaysOn working. It changes nothing.
Balanced new normal working arrangements are built on three new foundations.
- A rethink of inflexible job structures
There’s little point in flexibility about time and place if we retain existing inflexible job structures. Ones that contend jobs beyond a certain level in the hierarchy require long hours and the continuity of a single post holder. We’re increasingly accumulating evidence (and successful role models) to demonstrate that reduced hours in senior roles can be successful. That the ‘two heads are better than one’ benefits of job-share often outweigh slightly higher costs. And especially when it comes to increasing women’s representation in senior roles and reducing gender pay gaps, rethinking how we design work is an essential.
- Realigning HR practices
So many of our current HR policies are out of line with any attempts at balanced working. Employees who work from home often pay a penalty as a consequence of their lack of visibility with senior decision makers. They may be passed over when it comes to career defining assignments, or simply considered less committed in cultures that value long hours over productive outputs.
Even more enlightened HR policies such as those sanctioning reduced hours at senior levels are rarely supported with the requisite follow through. I’m tired of reading social media posts from women who’ve been allowed to reduce their hours with little or no guidance about how to reduce their workload accordingly.
- Tackling biased thinking
I rarely write about bias. It’s a tricky area. The jury is still out as to the effectiveness of the Unconscious Bias training that’s currently so popular in many workplaces. The evidence suggests that making people aware of their biases can be counterproductive. And when it comes to our quest for balanced working there are a number of biases that get in the way of women. Many are embedded in outmoded working practices and assumptions that working mothers must choose between a focus on family or one on work. As Stew Friedman has pointed out, professionals increasingly want to focus on getting the best out of both. Tackling many of these implicit biases requires open and honest conversations; rather than decisions based on unvoiced assumptions.
This week I encourage you to actively choose a new normal that supports balanced working by challenging outmoded assumptions and practices; and encouraging your employer to address these three essential foundations for a balanced workplace.
In last week’s blog I mentioned that the UK’s Equal Pay Act is fifty this year. While things have improved for women over the past half century there’s still a lot more that needs to be done. Specifically many workplaces continue with deeply embedded practices biased against all but those considered ‘ideal workers’. Outmoded ways of thinking continue to create career barriers. For women in particular the challenge is one of trying to adapt to workplaces designed ‘by men for men’. Across the globe women carry out three times as much unpaid domestic and caring work as men. Organisations, on the other hand, continue to operate on the notion that employees are unencumbered by outside responsibilities; or at least that work is always the priority.
This outmoded thinking manifests itself in a myriad of ways: a lack of access to flexible working truly designed to provide a balance between home and work; the increasing creep of work into non-work time as technology creates an #AlwaysOn culture; the assumption that senior roles can only be carried out successfully by one person working long hours; and so on. In the face of this ‘glass labyrinth’ it’s easy to become frustrated and wonder if things will ever be any different.
In my book I write about the power of Appreciative Inquiry to bring about change. When we use this approach (which is grounded in positive psychology) we start to ask questions about what’s going on in the organisation. It focuses the attention and has the power to initiate a change process.
I’m a great fan of questions as a tool for changing thinking.
When we challenge someone directly they might become defensive. But when we ask a question the mind is drawn towards finding an answer.
For example, a few years back I talked with a new mother who’d returned to work on reduced hours. As a senior manager, she was the only one of her colleagues working a non-standard arrangement. Her biggest challenge was the expectation that she would attend off-site overnight meetings which clashed with her desire to see her young child. She could simply have pointed out that overnight meetings were now inconvenient. But that would go against cultural expectations and stereotype her as a woman more concerned with family than career. Asking questions such as: how could we organise this meeting so none of us need be away overnight? And: what would be the benefit to people of not having to spend that much time away from home? on the other hand, is likely to elicit a different response from colleagues.
Asking questions allows us to assert ourselves in a non-threatening way while shining a spotlight on outmoded working practices. We’re able to bring about more gradual change, often without anyone noticing. And the barriers getting in the way of women’s progress become slowly eroded.
This week, as we continue our #rebalance journey, what outmoded corporate practices or ways of thinking are getting in the way of you having both a career and good work-life balance? What question can you ask that will begin to shift the thinking of your workplace colleagues? What are you waiting for?
I’ve recently finished reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez which has powerfully reconnected me to my feminist roots. They go way back to the late 1970s when I was at university, living in the optimism that things would be better for my generation (and successive generations) of women. Despite increasingly focussed equality legislation progress since then has been at a snail’s pace. And with the advent of the pandemic I’m seeing more and more sexism everywhere.
My inbox and twitter feed are currently crammed with advice on how to manage flexible workers and flexible working. And all of it is gender blind. By which I mean it fails to acknowledge the huge differences between men’s and women’s circumstances. Women shoulder three times the burden for caring and household tasks. Advice such as making sure to take regular breaks from work is meaningless for women under unprecedented pressure to juggle work, childcare and home management. And the challenge of protecting our mental health becomes exacerbated as the mental load increases.
But men are stepping up; I hear some people argue. If only that were the case. Men believe they’re stepping up but, as the New York Times reported last week, they’re actually not. According to two US based surveys women continue to shoulder the burden of household duties while also carrying out the majority of home schooling. Men, on the other hand, report they’re helping more at home and covering the bulk of home schooling. The explanation for the discrepancy lies in the invisibility of women’s unpaid work.
So here’s some radical advice for women based on the words of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw: be unreasonable.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
The history of women in the workplace has been one of them adapting to the working world. Now’s the time to be unreasonable and:
- Make employers, partners and even older children aware of the extra burden that women have always carried and that’s getting heavier at this time;
- Politely challenge gender blind employer guidelines on “how to be an efficient home worker” that assume work is our only focus;
- Remain grounded in the knowledge that women bring value to the workplace simply by providing a differing perspective. That our paid work makes an equal and essential contribution.
- Develop a vision of how better balance looks rather than compromise our own needs; and develop clarity around what that requires from both our employers and our family.
Yes, we run the risk of being called unreasonable. But then being reasonable hasn’t gotten us very far.
Our challenge is to create new working and living arrangements that are neither gender blind nor gender neutral; but that accommodate current differences between men’s and women’s lives. We must continue to press for progress. So that when the whole pandemic fiasco is over women are able to continue making their best contributions in all walks of life.
The word flexism may not have made its way into the dictionary yet but the concept has been around for several years. It refers to the unconscious bias held against those who work flexibly (and often less than full time). It raised its head again last month as research findings released by the social enterprise Timewise suggested it was rife in the workplace.
Flexism impacts behaviour in both overt and covert ways. The Timewise report gave examples of the former: reduced hours workers feeling their input is less valued and that colleagues don’t see them them as a full member of the team. In addition, as they often have less opportunities to socialise with colleagues they can also feel less connected to them.
Covert flexism manifests itself as the unspoken assumptions often held by managers that reduced hours workers are less interested in development and stretch assignments; that their focus is on family rather than career.
If you want more balanced working how do you face down flexism?
Start by changing the conversation. Rather than explaining the reasons for your reduced hours in terms of caring responsibilities; make it clear that this is a conscious strategy to keep you and your skills in the workplace. Focus on the contributions you are making in your job..
Look for opportunities to let your manager know you’re still keen to progress and to take on stretch assignments. Remind him that you’re willing to explore how it might work in practice.
Since you’re the one working non-standard hours the reality is that it’s down to you to create opportunities to socialise and connect with colleagues. Make use of available technology such as intranets; or suggest socialising at lunchtime rather than after work. You may be surprised at how positively your suggestion is received..
You’ve had the courage to ask, now think about how you can influence the thinking of others. Could you start a conversation with your colleagues to explore the benefits of flexible working for them? There’s mounting evidence that men are also looking for balanced working. They want to be involved fathers; and many are also carers of adults. And they too are aware of the subtle flexism rife in organisations. If you open up a discussion who knows where it may lead.
To do all this effectively you’ll need to get ruthless at crafting a workable job. Focus on the key tasks that will help you achieve your objectives. And see making time to network as essential to your development. It’s likely to bring new opportunities. As Herminia Ibarra observes: “If you don’t create new opportunities within the confines of your “day job” they may never come your way.”
Above all else remain confident of your skills and who you are. You get to define yourself, not other people. Define yourself by your contribution and not your limitations.