12 March 2020

Does flexible working mean you can have your cake and eat it?

Anyone who knows me in Siemens will be aware that I have been banging the drum for Employee Led Flexibility for almost 18 months.  This is our principle which empowers employees to lead the conversation about flexibility and which underlines that flexibility is for anyone, in any role, for any reason.  As Diversity and Inclusion Manager, I’m passionate about flexibility because it enables our company to live an inclusive culture in a very practical way.  I also believe that this culture will deliver the more diverse organisation for which we’re striving.

Employee Led Flexibility (or ELF for short) doesn’t just enable women to return to work, it’s about creating equal opportunities for everyone; carers, those with mental health concerns, older workers and anyone with a disability.

What about you, Harriet? Did you live an employee-led flexibility approach?

I’ve had countless conversations and given many presentations on the topic and I’m always a little wary of the killer question, the one that might trip me up as being inauthentic.  “What about you Harriet?  When your children were small, did you live an employee-led flexibility approach?”  I’m wary because the answer is no. 

Early Days of Being a Parent

Like many, I came back to work after my first maternity leave working 3 days a week.  In honesty, I wasn’t looking for flexibility, I was looking for something fixed and definite.  Financially, it made sense to fix my working days and childcare arrangements which involved complicated logistics for my husband and I, dedicated grandparents, nursery, preschool, breakfast club, childminders and after school clubs.  It’s exhausting just thinking about it. It wasn’t simple or cost effective to be flexible or to work full time and focus on my career.  I also had a long list of ideals of what a parent should do: homemade birthday cakes, healthy meals eaten together as a family, volunteering for school trips and parents association; working part time enabled me to do that.  So, whilst I worked hard and had various challenging roles at Siemens, gaining plenty of new experiences and skills, I wasn’t focussing on my career progression and I wasn’t very flexible.  It was my choice.  But now my children are a little older, I am living ELF and I can now see all that it can offer for equal opportunities.

ELF beginning to work

I now travel much more regularly for work.  I still work slightly reduced hours but my colleagues would struggle to pinpoint my working pattern.  Week by week, I adjust according to meetings, business requirements and family needs.  Sometimes I’m away for the night.  But I also ensure that I’m picking up from school and cooking family meals several days a week and flex how that works.  It shifts and evolves, and no two weeks are the same.  My colleagues see absolute commitment and flexibility and my career progression is actively sought by me and encouraged by Siemens.

As much as anything this is possible because of my husband.  Neither he nor his company use the term ELF but it is because they also live a similarly empowered culture that this works for us.  I think he secretly loves it when I’m away for work because he gets to do things his way.  The kids barely notice the difference.  He’s a good cook and much better at cleaning and washing that I am and he’s a dedicated Dad.  ELF culture means that we’re equal partners as parents and we have equal opportunities at work.

There are plenty of memes online which refer to the “mental load” that mothers bear, and of which fathers are simply unaware (party invitations, world book day costumes, endless demands for cake sales).  Many women describing all the unseen additional work of being a parent which is mostly picked up by Mums.  Of course, there are men that take the lead role in families but in our society we still don’t see equal parenting which is why these memes are shared so often. I’m of the opinion that the only way to change our society is if we create an employee led flexibility culture which is openly used by everyone.

My husband and I are equal parenting partners because ELF means that neither career is compromised and neither parent takes a lead, and we’re both happier because of it.

Would you have done things differently?

Looking back, if you ask me now whether we’d have done things differently when our children were tiny, I honestly don’t know the answer.  I’d have struggled to give up the time I had with my children; they will always be precious in my memory. My choice was quite deliberate and the roles I had whilst working part-time gave me experiences and skills and internal contacts which I’m using now in my current role.  I didn’t feel, at any point, like I wasn’t challenged and enjoying my career. But maybe ELF would have given me a flexibility which meant that I could have done both. And maybe there are other women out there who made a different choice to me who would have valued ELF.

I’m absolutely convinced that ELF is an important part of creating equal opportunities for all.  Not everyone will want to take advantage of working flexibly, but for those that do, a culture which enables individuals, whatever their circumstances, to consider roles that they might have considered impossible beforehand surely is a good thing.

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