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Flexible working – does it work for senior leaders?

Nic Paton

Two staff sharing ideas

The lack of senior roles with a real element of flexibility is marked – so much so than when one works well, as it did at Macmillan, it makes the papers. Nic Paton asks why there aren’t more flexible roles for senior leaders – and if employers need to embrace the change

Congratulations to Lynda Thomas and Hilary Cross for making job-sharing at a senior level work. But the fact their story – that both made it to executive-level positions (Thomas as CEO and Cross as director of marketing and communications) at the charity Macmillan Cancer Care on the back of a job share – was considered worthy to be a case study in The Daily Telegraph in August speaks volumes about how exceptional, how uncommon, this sort of trajectory still is within many British boardrooms.

It’s not, of course, that flexible working in itself is uncommon in the average UK workplace these days. It’s been more than a year since the “right to request” to work flexibly was enshrined in law, we now have shared parental leave, we (or probably most of us) have laptops, tablets and smartphones that enable us to work remotely or on the go.

Moreover, as the ILM highlighted last year in its report Flexible Working: goodbye nine to five, almost all (94%) of UK organisations now offer staff some form of flexible working, while nearly three quarters (73%) of managers say their organisation is largely supportive of it.

The question, therefore, is not why flexible working doesn’t happen in UK workplaces; it’s why what we might term “proper” flexible working – in other words regular, contracted job sharing, compressed hours and part-time working rather than simply the occasional stint from home on the laptop – doesn’t happen more often at senior management and leadership levels.

Tougher at the top?

Why don’t we see more job-sharing CEOs, part-time HR directors, flexi-time commercial managers and so on? Why is it, as the Institute for Public Policy Research warned last year,  UK employers still often fail to keep their best female staff – the so-called “mummy track” – because of a lack of flexibility in hours?

Is it because, above a certain level of responsibility and commitment, senior roles are genuinely harder to share, break down or manage flexibly? Or does it just come back to engrained, inflexible cultural expectations, assumptions and attitudes about what a “senior” role needs to be, and (just as importantly) needs to be seen to be?

“This is often perceived as being difficult. Isn’t it just easier if everyone worked full time? There can also often be a sense of ‘if we do for x we’ll have to offer it for y and z’,” concedes Richard MacKinnon, insight director at think-tank The Future Work Centre.

“The danger is by being inflexible you end up forcing people into a decision they would much prefer not to make. But it does not have to be all or nothing. Senior, successful people are good, that’s why they’re senior – why do you think they won’t be able to adjust to a flexible arrangement if that’s what they want to make work?” he argues.

The curious thing, of course, is that the benefits of retaining senior people who want to work flexibly – and let’s not forget, this is not just about returning mums – all the way up the corporate food chain are so self-evident. You’ll not lose valuable talent you’ve invested in; you’ll have a more diverse workforce; you’ll be more attractive to anyone who wants a bit of work-life balance or is maybe juggling caring responsibilities or wants to work into older age or a portfolio career, and so on.

Moreover, as argues Juliet Turnbull, founder of 2to3days.com, an online community that connects “enlightened employers with capable and committed women” who want to work flexibly, showing that flexible roles work at a senior level can create a positive ripple effect throughout an organisation.

“If you have senior people in the organisation that embrace this, it gives encouragement to more junior managers that part-time flexible roles exist. Change is difficult and can be slow; changing the culture of an organisation can be hard. But, really, it is only hard to shift if management are not enlightened. If management recognises it is the way forward it makes it much easier,” she says.

Making flexible working work for senior leaders

So how can employers reshape senior roles to make them more flexible? And, to return to our original question, is flexible working genuinely harder to implement and manage at this level?

It’s perfectly possible to implement and manage flexible senior roles, emphasises Sarah Churchman, diversity and inclusion and employee wellbeing lead at PwC. The key is not just to do it, but to talk about the fact you’re doing it.

“Most staff make assumptions about their leaders. For example, Gaenor Bagley, our head of people, works a 90% rather than a full-time contract. But a lot of people will not know that. So you need to show people, and show people how they can do it,” she points out.

“The first thing is you trial the arrangement, then you talk about it, ideally on at least an annual basis. Often what happens is people put in place a working pattern and that stays unchanged, and can be a barrier to allowing more flexibility. So it has to be talked about,” she recommends.

“It can be helpful to think about what arrangement suits the role, so not so much the individual. But you may need to emphasise that if they then change role, it may not be that the same arrangement will work,” she adds.

It is important to sit down and carefully evaluate what the needs of the business are, what the needs of the various parties are and if you can marry the two, advises Turnbull. There may be occasions where you genuinely cannot make it work, but nine times out of 10 it will be possible.

“In my experience, mothers who have returned to work are much the most committed workforce on the planet. So it is important to focus on the plusses as well as the obstacles,” she adds.

“You need to have good, ongoing conversations about their aspirations,” agrees Churchman. “It is fine for someone to say, ‘I’d like to spend a year just focusing on settling back’, but let’s make sure we do have another conversation in a year about it.

“Those stereotypes about women returning to the workplace having less confidence often say more about the organisation than they do the women – so what can your organisation do about that? For example, we offer maternity coaching. It is just about having an honest dialogue,” she adds.

Things to consider

  • Focus on outputs rather than face time
  • Recognise it may require your organisation to think creatively about how things get done
  • Ensure open and clear conversations and lines of communication
  • Pilot or test the arrangement first
  • Make sure you review it regularly, and keep talking about how it’s working out and/or could evolve
  • Recognise opening the door to flexible working for senior leaders – and talking about it – may create expectations around, and an appetite for, flexible working further down the organisation

Further reading

Job share helped us become CEOs

The right to request flexible working

Shared parental leave

Goodbye nine to five:

IPPR Women and flexible working



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