Anna Whitehouse on why working at home during the pandemic shouldn’t be mistaken for ‘flexible working’…
Anna Whitehouse is an author, Heart FM presenter and campaigner for flexible working. With so many parents at burnout right now – juggling extended periods of childcare whilst trying to prove to their employers that they can work productively at home by making themselves available 24/7 – we caught up with Anna to discuss what needs to change.
Could you start by telling us what ‘Fake Flex’ means?
The main thing to remember here is that we aren’t ‘working from home’ at the moment. We’re in our homes working in the context of a pandemic, and they are two very different things. Our kitchen tables or cramped home offices aren’t the magic solution for toxic office culture. Our campaign Flex Appeal – to fight for flexible working for everyone – launched a recent report with construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine and social change agency Claremont entitled ‘Forever Flex: Flexible working beyond a pandemic’. What it found is that 2020 is not the time to hail a flexible working revolution because people are burning out by always being ‘on’. We’re in a period of ‘fake flex’ where employees are competing to prove their
worth by logging on 24/7 and in turn aren’t taking a break, resulting in them breaking. What we have now might look like flex, but people are working at home in the context of a global crisis without all the benefits of flex – improved mental health, a better work/life balance, the ability to care for others. We want to create a lasting shift where flexible working isn’t a bonus or something you’re expected to earn – it is simply the norm.
Do you think that employers will be more open to flexible working post-pandemic?
Through the Forever Flex report, we found that 72% of all employers want to keep working from home, and 70% of all employers want to keep working flexitime – so there’s definitely hope. The challenge now is making sure it actually happens and that’s why we published this report. It’s a critical read for any decision makers or leaders within a business who want to use this time of crisis as an opportunity to make long-lasting, meaningful change, particularly those who may have previously come up against barriers to do so.
With everyone essentially ‘living at work’ right now, how can you work with your employer to make sure you are maintaining a good work / life balance?
1 Counterbalance employer cynicism with a trial period of flex. Hold the hand of your employer and prove flexible working works by measuring productivity over that period. You can’t argue with facts.
2 In the face of a blanket ‘no’ don’t immediately quit. Form a flexible working group (ensure it’s for everyone and not solely a women’s network) internally to discuss issues and open the company up to good practice across your industry in a non-confrontational way. The aim is to get them listening. We are in a period of transition and everyone has the ability to start a conversation around the link between effective flexible working, closing the Gender Pay Gap and recruiting and retaining a truly inclusive and diverse workforce.
3 Remember Flex has to be a two-way process. Ultimately it has to be about productivity and focusing on the business benefits. It won’t work going in with a list of demands, always have the business at the centre of negotiations. A happier, healthier workforce is a more productive workforce. Flexibility is good for business.
And how can employers use the current situation of ‘accidental flex’, as an opportunity for long term change?
- Look at the success stories of where a flexible approach has achieved better results and use them to create impact with decision-makers. Stories trump statistics every time. The more human, unexpected and unusual the better
- Giving ALL colleagues a chance to work out what good flexible working looks like gives them a stake in the process. As a result, it is more likely to stick. Could one team of managers train another? How might colleagues’ experiences of flex be used to help others understand its benefits?
- Ongoing two-way communication is critical. Talk honestly and openly, and try to share vulnerabilities. Listening is even more important. Where’s the rub in your day? What one small thing would improve your working life?
- A flexible approach still needs boundaries. Do you need people to work core hours? Are there certain service levels that must be met? Should people communicate in specific ways? Tell them. Make expectations crystal clear.
What has your own situation been like working at home and managing childcare during the pandemic?
It’s been a journey. I don’t think anyone was prepared for the level of teaching, working, conference-calling, cooking, fringe-cutting, news-watching or general worrying that the past nine months had in store for us. I’ve wanted to flick my husband in the forehead on more than one occasion and I’ve cut toast into the shape of every animal known to man, but we’re making it work as a team. Matt (my husband) and I split the day in half – I work in the morning while he keeps the kids alive, then we swap.
And finally, do you have any mum-hacks for other parents trying to juggle it all at the moment?
Here’s a few that helped me through both lockdowns:
1 Try The Time Blocking Method. Split your day between proactive (working on new projects) and reactive (clearing emails) otherwise you feel you’ve done nothing with your day other than wade through the inbox of doom.
2 Give family members clear time slots for asking you to open a gherkin jar/look at a new dance move/discuss the latest tier trauma
3 Make sure you have social chats with friends, colleagues, other mums as often as you can. Even if it’s just to ping a quick meme onto the WhatsApp group – stay connected with the real world and support each other.
4 Acknowledge that you will get hacked off. There will be a child that spills Beena [Ribena]. There may be a postman that pummels the door like Tyson Fury. There might be a partner who still doesn’t know where the clean tea towels are despite having cohabited for 13 years. Make peace with the chaos. You can’t fight it. You will otherwise end up screaming at everyone to shut up and realise mid-way that you are only wearing a pair of knickers and a hoodie with gherkin juice dribbling down your chin.
Author, campaigner and Heart FM presenter. Read the Forever Flex: Flexible Working beyond a pandemic report at srm.com