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Attitudes towards flexible working must change – it must become the norm

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Article by Niki Addison, Customer Success Director at Babble

17 years ago, just four months after the birth of my daughter, I had to return to work from maternity leave.

I requested to move to a four-day working week at the company, but it was rejected. I had to go back five days a week, work long hours and deal with a strenuous commute.

When my second child was born 12 years later, I was already working four days a week at a tech company, which prided itself on flexibility and its people. My productivity wasn’t affected by the shorter working week. Since then, I’ve learned that in most cases, shorter working weeks have little to no impact on productivity.

My taking on a managing director role four days a week, without affecting the business, changed how I approached recruitment. I soon realised that giving opportunities to the right person for a role was more important than where, when, and how they worked.

All I look for is a smart, focused and responsible person. I just don’t understand why a business wouldn’t go for someone like that. Regardless of where and how many hours they work, their business impact is going to be huge. Those who are working shorter weeks will generally be productive because they don’t have the luxury of going at a slower pace. While we tailor a role to fit in with less hours, this doesn’t mean less responsibility, just a slightly different scope of work If, as a business, you don’t think like that then you’re missing out on incredible talent.

Flexibility also provides you with the benefit of a happy workforce who know they never have to ask if they can take two hours out of their day for their child’s nativity play or sports day, for example. At Babble, staff don’t need to ask management – they just put it in their diary and go. We trust that person will pick up any tasks later in the day, no questions asked. Client meetings can be moved, and I trust my team to pick up their work at the right time. If they were ill, they’d need to move the client meeting – so what’s the difference? I trust them to judge what simply cannot wait what can be moved. If I don’t trust them to do their job, why are they in the job in the first place?

As a mother, and speaking from experience, any other option leads to guilt. You either have mum guilt, or the guilt of knowing you’ve snuck off to watch the play or attend sports day. Neither sits well with me personally. Our way, the right way, keeps talent in organisations and industries and builds trust and honesty with staff.

And this isn’t just for working parents. If an employee who doesn’t have children wants to change their working patterns, it’s an equally valid request. . My only consideration is what impact it has on our business, and can we facilitate this? If we can, then we should, because the colleague’s wellbeing is the most important consideration.

The pandemic has brought about a lot of talk about four day working weeks, hybrid work and more. However, we’d fostered flexible work pre-pandemic and weren’t forced into a major change when it came to flexibility. Of course, there was an impact when we were all made to work from home full time, but not in the same way as most businesses across the country.

However, the wider working world is going to have to get ready for this flexibility now people are returning to offices.  Employers must begin to anticipate questions and know how their wider industry is dealing with similar questions. It wouldn’t sit well with me if the business I worked for didn’t accommodate this flexibility.

In fact, if your industry doesn’t believe in flexibility, people will leave and find something they can do on their terms. If employers are going to be tough about this, they’ve got to accept they will lose people. And that’s going to impact their industry over time. Flexibility is the answer to retaining and attracting this talent.

It is true that technology has made it harder to switch off in some ways, but the flipside is that it has also made flexible working possible. Technology is only going to become more adaptable, and it would be strange if our working patterns didn’t keep up with this evolution. With the right parameters in place, technology should be something which empowers you to live the lifestyle you choose, rather than a sap on your energy and time.

When I made the request to work flexibly, 17 years ago, deep down I knew it’d be rejected. I know I don’t ever want to be in a position where I have to turn down a similar request from a colleague – I know what it’s like to be in their shoes.