It comes as no surprise that the need for more flexible working practices has become a talking point. Before Covid, many companies were reluctant to formalise working from home, or consider hours outside of the traditional 9-5. The last 18 months has proven that employees can shift to home offices and adapt hours to better fit their lifestyles, without compromising productivity.
From the mother who won £180k from the employer who wouldn’t allow her to finish at 5pm to collect her daughter from nursery, to the significant study that proved families in the UK are being crippled by childcare costs, there’s been a deluge of headlines highlighting why flexible working needs to be considered the norm, rather than the exception.
Change is now afoot. There is a groundswell - from workers globally - who have yearned for more flexibility, but have been too worried to request it, or are surprised when their organisation doesn’t offer it. Earlier this month, it was confirmed that UK employees will gain the right to request flexible working from day one at a job.
I did compressed hours when I returned from maternity leave to my corporate job in 2019 and so I know firsthand that this type of work pattern can reap many benefits, once you negotiate it, and adjust to this way of working. It was the lessons I learned - while doing compressed hours, being a professional mother with a demanding job - that led me to create The Women’s Vault, so I could pass on this knowledge and create a global community of women who thrive in their careers and personal life.
For the clients that I help to negotiate flexible working, it can transform their home lives, cut childcare costs and create better work/life balance. Here’s why should you consider flexible working, and how can it make a difference to your life.
How best to approach flexible working
There are many ways to work more flexibly: part-time, job shares, staggered hours, phased returns, phased retirements or remote working.
I often recommend compressed hours - for the individual it offers the balance of personal and professional gains, while stamping out unpaid work, which I often see with those working part-time; for businesses it encourages retaining top talent, including future women leaders.
So what is it exactly? Compressed hours (or a compressed work week) involves compressing a working week into fewer days, such as five days in four across a longer work day, or a nine-day fortnight. Alternative ways to structure compressed hours include working part-time, such as four days in three.
Why use compressed hours?
One woman I worked with saw her childcare costs drop by £3,360 once she adopted compressed hours, also allowing her a week day with her son. If you have two children at nursery for the first four years of their life (and you don’t receive government compensation), you could be £26,000 better off.
Think what that money could mean. It’s the start of a house deposit, or school fees. This childcare saving is in addition to being paid a full-time salary. If you’re on a on an ‘average’ UK salary of £40,000 over 10 years, this can equate to £100,000 more in your bank account, when compared to a four-day role.
If you start doing compressed hours in your mid-30s and you work until your late 60s, this could add up to £300,000. This long-term financial view is especially important when women typically retire on less savings than men.
There’s also more opportunity for career progression; those in full-time roles are typically favoured to those in part-time roles.
Achieving a better work/life balance
A huge factor in doing compressed hours is work/life balance. Research conducted by Confidence Matters in 2017 found that 85 per cent of women want to reach senior leadership roles, but one of the top obstacles they face is juggling their work and home lives.
For me, my non-working day with my son often involved going to the park, throwing on a load of washing and having lunch with my family or mother’s group. Sometimes work crept in, but it was a good lesson in learning how to set boundaries. It also meant fewer weekend chores, so we could properly enjoy family time.
For my clients, it has meant they can start a side-hustle, continue studies, or care for little ones or elderly parents. One takes her son swimming and I know in years to come, her memories of this time will be those swimming lessons and not which Zoom meeting she did or didn’t attend.
The downside of compressed hours
It can take time to adjust to flexible working patterns: it can require being very organised and highly productive, setting boundaries on your day off and communicating your schedule with stakeholders. There is a risk of becoming burnt out very quickly.
While I often hear clients worry that compressed hours leads to long and stressful working days with no free time, the schedules adopted - say 8am-6pm - can often mirror the hours they’d typically work anyway, without the benefit of a day off each week or fortnight.
Another common issue is feeling confident to ask for it, and your organisation being receptive to your request. Research by the Equalities and Human Right Commission found that almost four in 10 employed mothers had not requested flexible working because they assumed it would be ‘turned down’. One woman I worked with was employed at one of the top four accounting firms, which had previously not offered compressed hours, and was only able to do it after we developed a very compelling business case.
The case for flexibility
We need more individuals - at all stages of their careers - requesting flexibility and trialling or doing working patterns that balance their needs and the company’s needs to show how effective it can be. We’re working longer hours and more years than ever before and so it’s crucial that we create a work/life arrangement that enhances our life.
Olivia Bath is an award-winning communications specialist and Founder of The Women’s Vault, helping to create more women in leadership and employee wellbeing and development programmes for businesses.
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