Flexible working was on the agenda for 2020’s first meeting of the Operations Network, held on 28th January. The evening meeting was kindly hosted by Lucid and opened by Debrah Harding, MD of the MRS, the meeting the started with short presentations from the six-strong panel:

Tash Walker, Colin Butcher, Genene Cooper, Emma Beech, Susanne Lindner and Annie Auerbach. The meeting was chaired by me, Inger Christensen. Questions from members followed the presentations. Below a summary of the meeting:

First up was Tash, founder of The Mix. The Mix has worked a four-day week since 2016. All staff work Monday – Thurs and have remained on full time salaries.  As background for the decision Tash explained how an increasing frequency of the word ‘stress’ kept popping up in conversations with clients and colleagues alike, no one seeming to have time for anything but emails and meetings.  Coupled with a change in personal circumstances for her business partner, this made them want to radically change their way of working. The shift to a four-day week was not without its challenges but the effects have been overwhelmingly positive: 75% reduction in sick leave, treble turnover. Most surprisingly was the absolute positive feedback from clients, who have proved a tremendous support to The Mix and Tash on this journey.

Next up Colin, Head of Data 2CV told us how, seven years ago, he and his wife agreed she would work more and he less. Through a formal request to the board he was granted a four-day week, at the time unusual in his agency.  Around 2016 2CV stepped up its support for flexible working, embracing it fully by designing a flexible working policy for everybody, effective after completed probation.  In Colin’s team most members work flexibly, both in the hours they work and by working remotely some days. Colin stressed how successful flexibility requires careful planning, trust, and clear boundaries. Colin also made a very clear point in how flexible working must be for everybody, not just parents.

Then Genene from TimeWise, gave us an overview of how TimeWise, a social business, operates. TimeWise is dedicated to the promoting of flexible working through three different functions:

  1. Campaigning and lobbying with the aim of creating a fairer world of work, with an Innovation Unit funded by government and industry.
  2. Through their consulting arm working directly with companies to help them design and deliver flexible working. Genene emphasized how important it is not only to view flexibility as a talent attraction strategy but to design jobs and career paths where flexibility offer equal opportunity for progression and development. Often people in flex jobs stall their career – caught in what Genene called ‘the part-time trap’.
  3. Finally, TimeWise also has a job board with quality flexible jobs, with 80,000 active flexible candidates.

Emma who is SVP Global Operations, Verve told us how Verve’s flexibility approach had evolved organically rather than through a formal designed policy. Verve believes people produce their best work when happy, and Verve wants to support people in being happy. And there is no reason why they would stop people being happy – unless it directly conflicts with business imperatives.

As an example, Emma told us about a project manager, who after a couple of years in London as a recent grad, missed the north of England. Verve arranged for her to work remotely so she could move back up north. She worked remotely for six years, gaining promotion to team manager, and eventually was tasked with heading up Verve’s team in Romania because she was well equipped to understand the dynamics and support required by a remote team.  Emma concluded by saying that what they had learnt at Verve is, that when you build a team, build a culture and create a success story, you need to make sure you think about how people are supported and happy.

Susanne Lindner Head of Ops EMEA Lucid was Lucid’s first UK employee in 2016. Lucid is a New Orleans based tech company and their London office has now grown to 60. Each member of staff joining Lucid have been passionate about the project and have worked hard to make it a success. From the outset Susanne and Ben (Hogg, Lucid’s UK MD) wanted to ensure that everybody leaves on time. Lucid want people to have a life outside work. Working remotely is the norm at Lucid, and as a cloud-based company, this is easily enabled. Susanne’s main worry with remote working is that her team works too much, lacking the distraction of other people, overall team interaction and open-ended hours. Susanne is keen to keen to explore different models and options of flexible working for Lucid’s next phase in the UK.

The panel concluded with Annie, founder of Starling and author of  ‘Flex’. Annie shared her flexi work history with us – how she started working a four-day week 20 years ago in a large research agency.  Annie negotiated this, as an exception, on the understanding that she was not to shout about it – as flexibility could be seen as ‘contagious’. Annie shared how unsatisfactory being the only flexible worker is and how it effectively means working 5 days anyway, the last one from home or the playground. Based on this experience, Annie and her business partner launched Starling, a cultural insights agency. Starling has flexible working at its core because Annie truly believes that working flexibly increases their creative output.  Starling takes the summer off, thus working a 10-month year and also works flexibly in the week, during the working year.

Before fielding questions Inger, explained her background for the meeting and the reason for putting together the panel. Working in recruitment in MR since 2006 Inger has seen how candidates looking for flexibility in their jobs have outnumbered agencies offering it. Alas, over the last few years the discussion around flexible working has changed. From something candidates were advised to keep low on in the initial stages of a hiring process now finally seen as a legitimate, even normal, request.  This meeting, Inger said, she hopes will be the start of finding ways we can help each other as an industry, in supporting organisations in delivering flexibility - undoubtedly a valid talent strategy and a competitive business advantage.

Questions from the room:

A member asked Tash about their new ways of working and Tash explained they had moved from a linear process with lots of stages, where each person passed a piece of work onto the next, to working much more collaboratively with joint responsibility for the end delivery instead. To find new ways and processes, Tash and her team looked at IdeoDesign  and Making Toast. The takeout here is you must be creative when changing the way in which you work, you cannot keep working the same way.

Another question, this one for Colin, raised the issue of the general gender disparity in the current take up of flexible working. Colin shared that now several other men at 2CV work a four-day week, possibly as they had seen him do it, and that it is important we pursue this angle, with flexibility for everybody. The whole panel loudly agreed on this, and it was stressed how we must change the conversation from mainly benefitting women and family - it is your own business what your reasons are for wanting flexibility.

Along the same lines, another question highlighted the different generational uptake and attitudes to flexibility.  The member pointed out how in their agency flexibility is enjoyed and used by researchers at an established point in their careers and personal lives, whereas people starting out in their careers actively want the social aspects of working in an office – even to the point of fearing loneliness on the days where the office is empty of more senior staff.

The final question from the floor, echoing what Susi had said earlier – on how to avoid people working from home working too much.  This question resonated widely, and Colin admitted falling into that trap himself. Tash had recently had the same issue in her team and advocated tackling it in reviews, as not only is working too many hours wrong for the individual doing it, it can also hide issues in the business which get dealt with without being brought to the senior team’s attention. Effectively that person’s behavior undermined what they as a business have set out to do. Annie added that our technology is designed to be addictive, and to have flexibility requires hard edges, firm rules.  

Towards the end of the meeting Genene told us how pleased she was to see an industry coming together to discuss flexible working, and how urgently flexibility is needed for everybody.  We currently have five generations in the workforce, and we all want different things to make our lives balanced.

Annie rounded the evening off with a great line ‘I hope in five years’ time we will not be talking about flexible work; we will simply be talking about work’.

As a result of an energetic and inspiring discussion that could have easily continued all evening, we have decided to set up a working group within the MRS Operations Network, Flex Forum, aiming to meet twice a year to gather and share experiences and give mutual support, and any useful outputs are intended to be shared within the Operations Network and to Company Partners. Please contact Hayley.jelfs@mrs.org.uk if you are interested in joining the working party.

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