August is usually a time of holidays, but this time of year always reminds me returning to work after my first child, blearily strapping a bag of clothes, nappies and puréed food onto the buggy and hiking the now very familiar 1.1 mile walk to the childminders to drop my baby with strangers whilst I head home to the office/spare room.
On my 4th anniversary of being a working mum it seems like an appropriate moment to reflect being a working mum – stage one: the pre-school years.
Becoming a work parent, in my case, meant three big changes at once:
- Taking on a whole new sets of responsibilities beyond work ones
- Reducing the hours I worked each week from 45-80 on average to 25-35
- Becoming self-employed for the first time after 15 years of being an employee as I couldn’t find a part-time job.
Together this amounted to a big change in how I work on both a practical and philosophical level – for the better I’d argue, and not just better for for me, but for those I work with and for. Flexible working is an important issue – particularly for women – so I hope sharing my experience flags some of the changes that need to happen if flexible working is to work properly for all of us.
Reading the recent Demos report into flexible working I was struck that their research about the benefits of flexible working matched with my experince:
1. Loyalty to employers is increased - if you feel they respect you as a person with a life, as well as a job to do. Flexibility works if it’s a two-way street – according to Demos – and staff who receive the benefits of flexible working are likely to be more loyal, work harder, stay longer with that employer.
2. Increased productivity – freed from the distractions of the office, time wasted through commuting, various studies have found home-workers to be 20-60% more productive. In my case knowing I have finite time to get things done (rather than being able to work late each evening) means I’m incredibly focussed about what I do, well-organised and could prioritise for England in the Olympics. I’m much better at planning my time and using it well – because it’s scarce it becomes more valuable.
I’d add that becoming a working parent can increase commitment to your work, contrary to popular belief. If I’m leaving my kids to come into the office then I’m very serious about what I’m doing – I want to do it well, and feel that what I do is making a difference. There’s nothing like taking on responsibility for the next generation to strengthen your resolve on all kinds of issues – such as the environment (what kind of planet are we leaving to our kids and grandkids?).
Demos also identify a range of other benefits including improved retention, ability to recruit from a wider talent pool, reducing absenteeism and the ability to offering services beyond normal office hours by using shift workers.
Flexibility (which Demos define to include flexi-working, sabbaticals as well as the more traditional part-time models) is increasingly important to the workforce overall (beyond those of us for whom its a domestic necessity) with 54% of employees stating that flexibility is very or quite important to their decision in whether to take up a job offer. That rises to 92% of working mothers.
The Demos report makes a strong social case for increased flexible working, arguing that increasingly the UK needs its working population to have time to fulfill their responsibilities as parents or carers for elderly relatives, not to mention as active citizens in civil (or Big if you insist) society. It also provides evidence for a business case – suggesting smart businesses can ultimately save money by embracing flexible working (through improved productivity, lower premises costs, better customer-service through flexible hours and lower staff turnover). Anna Coote of New Economics Forum (NEF) has also made a strong case for shortening the working week for everyone to 21 hours in the coming decade.
But flexible working isn’t straight forward. Over the past 4 years I’ve also encountered several challenges:
The lack of challenging and senior roles available on a part-time and flexible basis – having relocated whilst on maternity leave I didn’t have the option of returning to my former role part-time, and in common with a good friend who was made redundant during her maternity leave, I discovered finding a part-time role at a senior level was impossible. Whilst employers may look favourably on a known staff member returning to work part-time, the likelihood they seek (or consider) external candidates on a part-time basis is far less. The wonderful Women Like Us is an social enterprise that’s working to change this situation, but many of us end up being self-employed instead.
A deep-seated suspicion of the commitment and effectiveness of those who work flexibly
As I’ve said before, there’s a widespread assumption, in the arts and probably more widely, that unless you are willing to work beyond your contracted hours on a regular basis you’re just not as committed or productive as the colleague who sleeps under their desk – despite the evidence to the contrary. I’ve line-managed part-time staff (some were parents, some were artists working part-time to continue their practice) and well understand it takes careful planning and better communication to make flexible working work well – especially if you’re in an organization which has a predominantly full-time (and long hours) culture. As the Demos report underlines, there is a need to set up flexible working systems properly and invest in infrastructure, but as their case studies show if you monitor the impact the benefits should be clear to see.
A lack of flexible, affordable, high quality childcare
I am very lucky to have brilliant childcare – but it’s not cheap. Childcare is my family’s biggest monthly cost (and we only pay for 2 days a week – for 2 children – because my parents cover my 3rd working day).
Tax-breaks through childcare vouchers ease the pain for those fortunate enough to work for the enlightened employers who offer this benefit, but don’t help the many of us who are self-employed. Similarly state-funded places for 3&4 years olds are not universally available – and in my locality most of the kids in those pre-school sessions have stay-at-home-mums. Probably because 3 hour sessions, term-time only, isn’t a terribly practical childcare regime for those of us with jobs.
If the government really wants to help working parents then the extension of tax breaks for childcare to all working parents and state support for childcare to childminders and nannies not just pre-schools would be a first step.
So to conclude, it’s not easy being a working mum – but (and even leaving out the most obvious benefit – the kids) it’s definitely worth it. In our family, the pre-school years are nearly behind us – Alex starts school on 5th September.
Friends warn me that it just keeps getting harder juggling school, kids and work – I’m sure there’ll be new challenges, but judging on past experience they’ll be plenty of new benefits too. And of course flexible working isn’t only an issue for working mums – dads, grandparents and the increasing number of people who care for elderly or infirm relatives also could benefit from flexible working. Or anyone who wants a healthier life/work balance. Speaking of which – I’d best go pack, we’re off on holiday tomorrow morning.