Research published by Bain and CEW in 2015 shows that about 50% of women working flexibly are experienced employees, who do so for various reasons such as to care for their children, achieve better work like balance etc. The female talent pipeline is vulnerable where that 50% are concerned, as evidenced by the astonishing drop in female work participation at executive level. Less than 15% of senior management positions are taken by women, and the lack of flexible work available in highly skilled positions is no coincidence.
If you want to protect the next generation of workforce, you have to accept that flexible working is critical to retaining talented women – but it’s true for men too! You need to reimagine the workplace to future-proof your organisation. If you view it as a necessary irritation, it will have a negative impact on how you engage with your flexibly working employees. Remember: The lack of flexible work contributes to the gender pay gap, limits careers, and with industries across the board missing out on highly developed skill-sets, it’s bad for business.
The results of treating female employees working flexibly as though their hours are ‘less than’ are fairly predictable: First, they’ll check out mentally. Then, they’ll start ticking boxes, and turning up for their salaries. Then, you’ll lose them entirely. Negative results all round.
If you take the time to support female employees working flexibly, you have a chance of retaining a dedicated, efficient, loyal and exceptionally organised group of women, who can then act as role-models and transform your organisation for the future. Which scenario do you prefer?
If you answered scenario B (correct!) these 7 ideas will help you understand and engage with flexibly working women.
1.Recognise flexible working as a positive choice
Far too many people still judge the decision to work flexibly as a cop-out, as in ‘fitting work around a child or commitment’. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of working part-time. Professional women who want to work flexibly are often driven by a desire to apply their fierce work ethic to all areas of their lives. These women use the same talents and drive to fulfil their potential at work, as they do in making the most out of time with their children. So, it’s not time with children ‘instead of’ work, it’s ‘as well as’ work.
2. Respect her time-management skills
For a brief window of time, we glorified the women who got nannies and immediately returned to conventional full-time roles. In many respects, it’s still impressive, but there is no hierarchy to how women choose to run their lives. It’s important to recognise the strengths and skills which women can develop in either full-time or flexible work.
It’s true: The women who has a full-time nanny probably puts in more time at the office. Women who work part-time, however, often report a higher level of commitment and loyalty to their companies. Remember: The women working flexibly or part-time is always spinning an extra plate; every hour of the day they plan the practicalities of life, as well as all their work commitments.
3. Communicate: Give credit when credit is due
As Einstein said, ‘The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.’ Flexibility is a quality, and a developable skill. There’s still some stigma attached to part-time work, and even those colleagues who feel neutrally or positive towards it may not think to give her praise. Now you know what she’s doing well, it’s time to tell her about it. Let her know what’s working, how she’s making a difference, and that her contribution is valued. Giving positive recognition will boost her confidence, and I guarantee that she’ll respond by giving even more energy to the business.
4. Be sensitive to the challenges
The decision to work flexibly entails a hundred other tiny choices, and each comes with its own benefits, challenges and responsibilities. If a woman is working four days a week, she can get away with being viewed as full-time by colleagues and clients. Some people may never realise that she’s not full-time. As there are only so many hours in the day, if she’s cramming five days work into four, she’ll be scrambling to get everything done, and her focus and engagement may suffer. If she spends fewer than four days at work, she may be 100% ‘there when she’s there’, but her absence will be more visible to colleagues and clients.
Whichever she chooses, she’ll be comparing herself to the choice she didn’t take, and it’s likely that her confidence will suffer. Knowing this, it’s up to you to encourage her in what she is doing, rather than pointing out what she is not.
5. Encourage setting boundaries
If she’s being paid to work three days, but feels like she’s working five, she won’t stick around for long. Working flexibly, means constantly switching roles between ‘professional’ and whatever the driver was that initiated that request for flexibility. Initially, this may mean that she seems slightly less present. Give her time to work out and negotiate her needs, and remember that in the long run, her saying ‘no’ when something isn’t possible will be more efficient than saying ‘yes’ and burning out.
6. Explore new ways for her to network
Think of the situations in which you normally network. The evenings? At lunch? Over conversations by the water-cooler? How often are the women in the office who work less than full-time present?
Suggest scheduling a time to brain-storm ways for her to raise her profile at convenient times. Generate alternative ways for her to become more visible, like using social media and getting involved in-house initiatives.
7. Encourage mentorship
When you support a women who has chosen to work flexible hours, you are creating a resource within your organisation. Women that are role models make fantastic mentors: Take a flexible working mother as an example: they’re equipped to support the next female employees to face the unique set of challenges that comes with working motherhood. In my experience, many women are overwhelmed by a staggering range of emotions (confusion, sorrow, guilt, anger, frustration) as well as excitement about getting back to work. By cultivating an environment in which providing support is expected, you’ll be setting up women, full-time and part-time alike, to thrive.
Bringing it all back to you:
Supporting flexibly working women is good for business, and crucial for the next generation of business. When talented women leave their jobs because the terms make it impossible to be the person they want to be, businesses waste millions of pounds in re-recruitment and re-training. Focusing your energy on making flexible working work is a win-win; in benefiting the business overall, it’s good for employers and employees alike.
Rebecca Hourston, Managing Director Working Parents & Executive