Flexible working isn’t for trading away – it’s the future

Flexible working isn’t for trading away – it’s the futureRecently, I resigned from my job. I was working four days a week, in a reasonably senior position in the public sector. Some might say I was lucky to still have a job in that sector, let alone a reasonably senior one, let alone one in communications. Since the coalition government came into power, and shut down the Central Office of Information, we have lost a huge number of our civil service communicators.

I don’t have another job to go to, so it’s been an interesting decision. Reactions to my decision have been just as interesting. A surprising number of people have assumed that I am giving up paid work altogether and becoming a stay at home mother. Others have congratulated me and then said ‘What are you going to do now?’ Good question.

Looking around me, I see increasing numbers of people doing what I’m doing: rejecting the traditional structures of work for something more flexible, more human. Some are actively choosing it, as I have. Some have it forced upon them through redundancy.  Many of them are women with families (but some are not).

Many better commentators than me have pointed out how disproportionately this government’s policies have affected women. Women make up 65% of the public sector workforce, where 270,000 job cuts were made in 2011 alone. Overall, it’s estimated that there will be 730,000 public sector jobs lost over the course of the planned cuts. That’s a lot of women out of work. Of the £18bn cut from benefits, £11bn comes from women’s pockets, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the Fawcett Society. Cuts to child benefit will particularly hit women, still the main carers for the nation’s children, and single parents most of all. To be a single parent and in work is becoming harder and harder under this government.

The latest scheme – employee ownership – is yet another example. Employees can give up some of their employment rights (those tedious rights that cost employers so much money) in exchange for a share in their employer’s company. This creates employees with a vested interest in the company, so the thinking goes, who will be more motivated and committed. And in exchange, the government graciously agrees to waive Capital Gains Tax on any profit these employees might make. Leaving aside the question of exactly how many of these employees are likely to breach the Capital Gains Tax threshold of £10,600, it’s interesting that one of the rights employees have to waive is the right to request flexible working.

If the government’s aim is to build the SME sector and promote entrepreneurial spirit and commitment, attacking flexible working sends a very clear message. It says that if you are a small, growing business, employees who are likely to want flexible working are not what you need. They won’t be entrepreneurial, or committed.  Being a parent – for it is mostly parents who request flexible working – is incompatible with building a business.

My decision, to abandon a well-paid but demanding job because it is not good for my family, would seem to support this theory. I gave up work because being a working mother in this particular job, I couldn’t be the best I could be at either of those roles. But there is another way of thinking about this issue. People have always worked. Fathers have always worked. Mothers have always worked. To be human is to work, to feed yourself and your family, whether by growing or hunting food, or earning money to pay someone else to do the growing or hunting. But the modern structures of work have become so divorced from human life that they are no longer compatible. We spend hours commuting to a distant office, sit in that office all day in front of a screen, travel half way across the country or even the world for meetings, get home too late to do more than kiss sleeping children and leave again early the next morning. And it is these logistics that we reject when we ask for flexible working, not the work itself.

How we got to this point is well documented. And we all know that in theory, many of these logistics are unnecessary. We know we have Skype, and email, and file sharing and high speed broadband. What needs to change now is how we think about work.

I used to work with a very wise lady who had this vision of the future.  That everyone could choose to work from home, and that if they didn’t, no one would commute further than to a work hub in their local community. At this hub, everyone could plug in and be connected to their current employer/s. All those carbon emissions from commuting, all those man-hours spent sitting on a train or on a motorway, all would be saved by just placing work in the community, instead of wherever the employer happened to be. And think of how much stronger those communities would be, if people spent their day working cheek by jowl with their neighbours. Of course some face to face time is needed at times – but travelling to the office every day need no longer be the norm.

People could still work exclusively for one employer – or freelance on a truly open market, one not limited by location. A marketing agency I worked with recently has a similar approach. The agency itself is really just one or two people. For each piece of work, they assemble a team of freelancers who have just the right skills and experience to fit that particular brief.  The client gets the best possible combination of people – the agency does not limit itself to using just its permanent employees. It requires co-ordination, it requires effort and above all networking, but it can work incredibly well for all concerned, with no one giving up their rights for spurious tax breaks.

I’m lucky enough to live in a city that has thriving freelance networks – more so than many other cities in the UK, from what people tell me. That’s where I’m headed over the next few months, to link up with those networks and (with any luck), find enough work to keep us all alive.  And in some ways, what I’m saying here isn’t exactly news. Look at how many people are already doing what I’m starting now. Look at those people who run businesses from home while raising a family. Look at how much time we all now invest in our social and business networking. Look at all the parents working at two, three different part-time jobs to assemble a jigsaw of employment that still allows them to pick up their children from school. All of these are taking us towards a fully networked approach, a more flexible approach to work. So what’s the problem, we’re getting there, right?

The problem is in policies like employee ownership, that give businesses the wrong message about flexible employment. Whether you support the reasons behind shrinking the size of the state or not, the figures speak for themselves. Many thousands of people will be finding themselves on the job market as a result, and the more options we can offer them, the better it will be for the economy. We can stimulate growth, but we also need to support businesses to consider part-time and remote working and to understand how to make it work.

Big business still relies heavily on the traditional 9-5, five days a week working model. Even the public sector, traditionally very supportive of flexible and part-time working, sometimes struggles to make it work in practice.  Why isn’t the government putting its effort into helping businesses change they way they think about work and employment? And why are we still seeing an endless rehashing of the ‘should mothers work’ debate? Let’s reframe that debate into ‘How can we make work compatible with family life, for mothers and for fathers – for everyone?’ And let’s see some policies that support and extend flexible working.

Noone ever went to their deathbed wishing they’d spent more time in the office, goes the saying.  In the office, maybe not. But many people would love the opportunity to find more fulfillment in work that fits around them and their lives.

UPDATE: Gaby Hinsliff (@gabyhinsliff) and Kathryn Flett (@kateflett) have written a great couple of pieces on this topic in The Times (paywall, sorry!). Fantastic soundbite: “Why miss bedtime every night just to bang your head against a professional brick wall?”