Since 2014, all employers in the UK have had a legal right to request flexible working from their employer. It’s the perfect deal for parents, right? Working hard and bringing in the chips but also being present for drop-offs, pick-ups, school plays and bedtime stories. But in the cold stark land of reality, a huge proportion of employers are still stuck in the archaic mentality of 9-5 bums-on-seats. So how are parents managing to navigate the working world in this supposed age of flexi-time?
Work after kids
My own experience of returning to the workplace after having children has been on the whole, fairly positive. When I had my first child, I was working for a children’s publisher in London. Although I felt sick with nerves asking to change from full-time to a three-day week, they agreed straight away and threw in an extra sweetener of allowing me to leave at 4pm every day. But I have also experienced the dread of having to ask for time off to watch my child’s play or attend a sports day. Or the guilt of being the first to leave every day. Or having to quietly decline post-4pm meetings because I need to race home for my children. The guilt, oh the guilt.
Suzy Lee, a PR consultant from London, found herself in hostile waters after she had her first child. “I had worked for the same company for eight years, always putting in extra hours and thought I was good friends with my bosses. But when I requested to work a four-day week and to leave at 5pm so I could pick up my daughter, they refused. They were not happy about me leaving half an hour early or having Fridays off to spend with my child. It was a horrible experience, especially as we had to have this conversation fairly early on into my maternity leave and it made me feel pretty stressed for the rest of my time off.”
Requesting flexi-time in a current job can be a tricky negotiation, but finding a new job that promotes flexible working (this includes job share, part-time, flexible hours, remote working) and fits in with family life can be even harder. With only 1 in 10 jobs over 20k being advertised as having flexible working options, it is clear that many employers are not considering flexible working as part of their recruitment processes.
Alice Wells works for a transport company and when struggling to find a part-time position at her senior level, concocted her own ready-made job-share plan to combat this rigid way of thinking. “The job I wanted was advertised as being full-time – 9-5.30 in the office. This was never going to fit in with my family life but I really wanted the job, so I actively found somebody I knew could do a job share with me and presented the idea to the company before I even applied for the position. Given a solution on a plate, they agreed to interview us separately and together and we got the job.”
So in some cases, employers are just being a tad lazy when it comes to flexible working. It’s not that they are against it, they are just reluctant to think outside of the traditional working patterns.
According to national statistics, over 80% of fathers are still working full-time despite recent research showing that 47% of fathers want to find a less stressful job because they struggle with balancing their work and family life.
Simon Beech, a solicitor from the South West, often finds himself lying about why he needs to take a morning off or leave early. “Working in a male-dominated office, I never want to admit that the reason I need to leave early is because my son has been sick at his nursery or I need to pick up my daughter from school. To be honest, I’m not sure how it would go down. So I usually lie – say I’ve got a doctor’s appointment or that I feel ill. It’s much easier that way.”
Similarly for Dave Finnigan, an office worker from London, being present in the office is the only way he can be taken seriously in his job. “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable asking for regular flexi-time or remote working so I could do pick-ups or drop-offs. Leaving before 6pm would be viewed badly by my co-workers and bosses. It’s annoying because I could easily work remotely and work in the evenings but I don’t think people would be happy if I was spending time out of the office so I could pick up my kids from school once a week.”
A millennial shift
Type ‘benefits of flexible working’ into Google and you’ll be swamped with research, articles, blogs and statistics all pointing to a happier workforce, enhanced company loyalty and increased productivity. It is undoubtedly the future and many companies are already leading the way, but when will the rest of the corporate world catch up? And when will parents get to stop feeling guilty about reducing their time in the office to take their kids to school?
Well, the shift could well be on its way when the millennial workforce reaches high tide. In 2015, millennials became the largest share of the workforce and in 2025 they will saturate the corporate world, bringing with them a more fluid way of working.
Millennials have grown up in an age of remote working and digital communication. They don’t want to be chained to an office for eight hours a day, five days a week when they could be more productive spending a day working at home. Working remotely is the norm for millennials and having a positive work-life balance is high on the list of things they look for in an employer. Now that millennials are having children and with childcare costs spiralling into orbit, the need for flexible working patterns has never been so important. So as the millennial generation start to whip the working world into a more malleable shape, hopefully nobody will ever have to feel guilt about requesting and achieving the F-word.
If you feel like you are still in the woods when it comes to flexible working, check out Acas for help and guidance on requesting flexible working from your employer.
(All names in this article have been changed)