Flexa's personal stories - we hear from Emily about the struggle to find flexibility

20th Jul 2020

Hi Emily, thanks so much for being in our Personal Stories series! To kick off, tell me a bit about you!

I’m Emily, and I am currently based in Gloucestershire. I’m currently a HR Business Partner and have been in HR for around five years. I’m from the midlands originally, but lived in London, all around the South East, then moved to the South West. I’ve lived all over the place partly because of my husband’s career - he had a brilliant career opportunity but it meant he’d be moving around every 12-18 months.

My husband also had to live abroad a few times during those periods. I made the difficult decision not to move with him at times, as I couldn’t find roles that would allow me to work fully remotely. I wish I could have found a role that would have given me the flexibility to choose when and how I could work  because we were apart for a total of 18 months.

You’ve lived all over the place, do you think that has impacted your career?

Yes & no. I’ve worked with loads of people and in different sectors because of moving around so much. The downside has been moving roles and starting again so frequently. For some reason there’s still a negative perception of moving around, and people assume that you can’t hold a job down or that you’re not the kind of person that they want to hire. People understand once you explain things, but when a job application is often just a CV it’s hard to get the chance to explain.

It’s sad that you weren’t able to find  a role that would allow you to move with your husband. How has this approach to flexible work varied from company to company?

When we were thinking about relocating to Germany for a while and I started looking for roles that I could do remotely but I couldn’t find anywhere that was honest about what was achievable and what wasn’t in terms of ways of working.

Companies don’t tend to talk about remote or flexible working publicly, and even when they do it is met with a lot of hesitation and suspicion.

In the HR space there is still a debate around whether some HR roles can be done remotely at all because of the people-focused nature of the job. Thankfully, it’s moved on a lot since then as COVID has forced people to rethink what can and can’t be done remotely, but we still have a long way to go!

Did you talk to any of the companies that you were working at about moving? What was their reaction?

I have had conversions about moving around, but not often. The one or two times that I’ve spoken to people about it there’s been an “oh I’ll check” “someone else doesn’t work Fridays so i’ll have to check because we can’t have too many people working flexibly”. It’s not that it’s been negative, but it’s definitely not been positive. I haven’t tried to have those conversations as much as I should have, really. If I can’t talk about flexible working in HR then who can!

Why do you think companies are uncomfortable?

The government narrative doesn’t help. Flexible working is associated with people having commitments outside of work, and companies sometimes think that means less commitment at work. There is also potentially a lack of trust around what you’re doing when you’re not in the office.

The regulations are mad too - you have to work somewhere for 6 months before having a legal right to request flexible working, and if you need to work flexibly then you can’t wait that long sometimes. The whole thing isn’t very human.

You’re also expected to justify why you need flexible work. This puts pressure on the employee to show that they can work despite working flexibly, rather than the company trying to accommodate different people’s working styles.

What does flexibility mean to you?

It means different things to different people. For me, it’s being able to work at times that work for me and the company, from locations that suit my working day. It also has to be fully embraced for it to have to be meaningful. For my team I’ll be practicing what I preach - making sure that I am giving my employees the ability to choose what works for them!

What have you found difficult about finding flexible roles? What information were you looking for?

Even just a sentence to say “we’re open to a conversation” would have been comforting and would have made it easier. Being on the other side of the fence and writing JDs, I just don’t understand why companies don’t make it public in order to attract the best people. More needs to be done.

I think we’re all in the same boat with feeling awkward about asking something from our employers, why do you think that is?

The narrative is “you prove to me how it could be done” or “why you need it”. That bothers me because you have to overshare. I had a conversation with someone about this at a previous role - she said “I’m telling you because I see no other way of working flexibly, but I am unwell and I have to work flexibly. I don’t want to tell you, but I feel like I have to otherwise I won’t be able to work normally”. I want people to feel like they can ask for it without having to justify.

I totally get that, I was so scared about asking my employer when my autoimmune disease started to prevent me from getting to work. I asked to work flexibly and they said “sure, that’s no problem, you focus on getting better” and ten days later they sacked me...

Wow. That’s exactly why people don’t want to share - because it opens up the potential to be discriminated against.

Everyone’s output is measured as hours at your seat, which I disagree with. I’d like to see the next phase of work to be a more rounded picture based on quality and output rather than presenteeism.

That’s a more positive, forward-looking point! What do you want the future of work to look like?

I could talk for hours about that! But just to focus on the future of flexibility so that I keep it short: it needs to be choice-based. Companies should lay their options on the table so that candidates can say A, B, C works for me but X, Y, Z doesn’t. I think that it’s mad that one way of working is expected to work for everyone.

People need to be trusted to get their work done at times that suit them. I want the future of work to be a place where people are given an equal playing field - whatever gender / family status / disability. If we did that, more people can get into a decent role that is meaningful to them and allows them to work in a way that works for them. The workforce is underutilized and that needs to change.

I completely agree. Do you think that there are any barriers that need to be removed to get to that point?

It’s a small one but there are so many phrases out there that are not helpful. Part timers / leaving early / long weekends - they’re all really damaging.

I also think something that has to change at a much bigger scale, past COVID. The flexibility around childcare - I say this as someone who doesn’t have children so I don’t even have a full comprehension of how hard the practicalities must be - childcare is so rigid and expensive and there needs to be more flexibility for parents so that they can do as well as people without children. That’s for both in office work and remote work.

Also, all organisations, if they keep office space, need to think about what they do with the space that they have left so that there is a pull to the office to bring people together. Tech will be the next step in that - people need decent broadband and a desk space. It’s amazing how hard that is to actually achieve!

What conversations have you been having so far about how people want to work?

Currently working through what does that mean for our employees - people have so much to say about it. COVID has opened that conversation really wide and it’s great that people are happy to talk about it. We want to keep that narrative open as it’ll continue to evolve. Previous examples of requests would vary from people compressing their hours into four days rather than five, or working remotely a couple of days, people who do annualised hours, all sorts.

Also, people are already asking the question about moving to a beach and working remotely.

Ah yes, like with the Barbados remote working visa!

Exactly. People are embracing the positive effects that work and life can have on each other. I hope the days are gone where people are expected to work harder because of working flexibly.

Absolutely. It should be the rule, not the exception.