The perception problem with flexible work needs addressing, now

Introverts often don’t think they will enjoy leadership roles

Vanessa Vanderhoek is the founder of Flexible Work Day, which was held this year on Wednesday, June 21. In this piece she explains why we need a national day focused on flexible work. 

One of the biggest remarks I hear all the time is, “flexible work is just for working mothers”. This is often followed up by an eye-roll and a furtive glance towards the nearest exit.

And here-in lies the biggest obstacle to flexible work and thus gender equity: mindset.

I am the founder of Career Inside Track, a consultancy that supports parents to balance the demands of their work and families, and assists employers to harness the benefits of flexible working arrangements to get the most out of their employees. All too often I hear the horror stories of employees trying to negotiate flexible work with organisations refusing to budge from the 9-to-5, five-day-a-week work model.

It’s not that organisations don’t engage flexible working policies. If you dig a little, most offer traditional flexible options such as part-time hours and carers leave. Sure they could do a lot better, but it’s a start. What’s really concerning is the negative stigma associated with working flexibly.

A 2016 survey conducted by Bain & Co, found that 60% of males would be open to working flexibly so they could take on more of the childrearing, but were twice as likely to have requests for flexible work rejected.

We conducted a survey recently and the results have been just as disappointing. We found that while flexibility was the most important influencer on career choice for respondents — ahead of remuneration and career progression (let that sink in for a moment) — perceived negativity of working flexibly was greatly felt.

I’m not surprised one bit.

Men were more likely to feel they could not perform their role flexibly while women, despite holding more flexible roles, felt guilty working flexibly. We all carrying the burden that we are not enough. We don’t give enough. One respondent reflected: “There’s a strong bias against flexible workers, that others have to ‘pick up the slack’”.

And we haven’t even mentioned those who care for loved ones with a disability or elderly parents. Or those seeking to move out of their current socio-economic status by working and studying. Or people suffering from mental illness. The reality is forcing a set working mould on the culturally, economically, sexually, racially and simply diverse society we live in is hindering us all. We need to re-think the 9-to-5 workday and shift the focus from face time to productivity.

Read more: How Bella Corke found flexibility by launching a major handbag business

The problem seems two-fold. Firstly, men and women need to feel they equally have access to flexible work arrangements. To shift traditional gender roles of women as care givers and men as providers, we need a revolving door — one that allows women into the workforce after children, and men out, to care for them.

Secondly, we need a top-down approach than normalises and celebrates flexible work for everyone who wants it. This includes creating jobs that allow for career progression, even while working flexibly, and sharing positive stories — of men and women.

One respondent from our survey shared: “Are we ever going to break through the belief that all senior roles must be performed at five days a week? If not, there is a terribly low ceiling for professional part-time employees”.

It’s great to see that some flexible work arrangements are evident in most organisations. More needs to be done, yes. But more importantly, our mindset needs to change. It’s not just about working mums. It’s not just about part-time. Language is powerful. And language articulated by the right people will, and does, change opinions.

Of course, underpinning all this is a need for governments to engage with flexibility. We need policy makers setting the tone, standard and expectation in the workplace. This includes policies giving rights to employees, access to flexible and affordable childcare and a sophisticated paid parental leave program.

So why do we need a National Flexible Work Day?

1. To collectively promote the benefits of flexible work and challenge individual and organisational mindsets;

2. To see gender equity achieved in our lifetime;

3. To inform governments and policy makers what is needed from society;

4. To support individuals seeking an alternate way of working;

5. And finally, to champion the organisations doing it well, because there are good news stories out there!

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda, which is a supporter and partner of Flexible Work Day. 

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