In less than a year, flexible working has gone from a ‘point of difference’ in a business to a standard way of life, and has been transformed from a female-dominated discussion around family and childcare to something that is expected by everybody, be it for lifestyle reasons, mental health, personal preference, or pure convenience.
Gillian Davidson, insurance lawyer and partner at Sparke Helmore says the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reshaped the discussion around flexible working, and has forced many employers to experience it in action.
Speaking at the Dive In Festival 2020, Davidson says it’s a conversation that no longer needs to be ‘battled with’ - however, the issue now will be to maintain the benefits that we’ve reaped, and to ensure that women aren’t disadvantaged by the ‘nurture’ role they’re so often naturally placed into.
“There’s no question that the reality of flexibility coming into our lives in such a dramatic and wholehearted way has really cut a conversation very short, especially for those of us who were trying to explain that flexibility was not just about working mothers, or a small cohort of carers,” Davidson commented.
“It applies to every single one of us, and our capacity to deliver what is best for us and our clients in the right time and place.”
“COVID-19 has certainly turned that bucket upside down and made it all very real, and that’s been a great thing,” she continued.
“I feel that so much of the conversation that we were battling with no longer has to happen - we’ve felt it, we’ve lived it and we’ve breathed it. That’s been a tremendous thing, both for men and for women.”
Davidson says that while the rise of flexibility is undoubtedly a good thing, COVID-19 has also made caring responsibilities very visible in a way they weren’t before. She says things like the cost of childcare will need to be looked at carefully, as will other carer responsibilities that perhaps haven’t been sufficiently taken into account by employers in the past.
“What COVID has really demonstrated is its demand for nurture,” she said.
“It’s demanded that we nurture the sick, the elderly and the very young in our lives - and that we nurture our own relationships in family, work, and our neighbourhood. That burden has fallen to women in a greater proportion, and the challenge for us is how we can respond to that.”
“Wasn’t it great to see the whip-away of the childcare affordability issue when this started?” Davidson continued.
“That has come back now, and I’d like to see a continuing discussion about the tax deductibility of childcare.”
“The nurture discussion is one that we are all responsible for, and I recognise that both men and women want to participate in that nurture environment,” she added.
“None of us have all the answers, but it’s important to acknowledge it and to talk about our experiences. We can talk about what flexibility looks like for our society, but I’m so pleased to see that the band-aid has been ripped off and we’re all participating in that discussion.”
Kevin Bates, group head of risk and insurance at Lend Lease says that he was running flexible working teams for a long time before the pandemic hit, and that, for him, the key element has always been trust. He says it’s always important to account for different preferences and personalities within your team, and that, ultimately, results and performance should speak for themselves.
“In my mind, the key is authentic and visible leadership,” Bates said.
“I don’t think you can fake the elements necessary to leave every member of your team feeling empowered and accountable to perform in a way that’s right for them. I’ve always been of the view that if I don’t trust a person to work from home, I shouldn’t have trusted myself to hire them in the first place.”
“There are a couple of very obvious lessons here, the first of which is that everyone works in different ways,” he explained.
“I’m an early bird, I like to get a jump on the day - but I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. People need to be trusted to perform when it suits them best, either because of family circumstances, or because they have better focus at a particular time of day.
“We need to trust people to own their own workload and performance, and I’ve always run my team that way around the world - and it seems to work. And if all is not well, they’re also not shy about telling me when they’re not hitting the ball out of the park either.”
Bates says that when it comes to terminology, even the very phrase “flexible working” is becoming outdated. He says employers need to embrace that they are offering a “working environment,” and trusting the employee to decide which setting will suit their focus best.
“I actually don’t like the phraseology of ‘flexible working,’ I think we need to get that out of the lexicon,” Bates said.
“It’s ‘working,’ and it shouldn’t be a point of difference now for employers to say that they offer flexible working. You offer a working environment, and it should be up to me to decide how to execute that and how I perform.
“It’s not a differentiator now, because people expect it - it’s just the new working environment.”