Can flexible working solve the career break penalty?

Three in five professional women in the UK return to lower-skilled or lower-paid jobs following their career breaks, according to research by PwC, experiencing an immediate earnings reduction of up to a third.

Addressing the career break penalty could boost female earnings by £1.1 billion annually, equivalent to £4,000 per woman. However this wouldn’t just benefit the women who are losing out financially: the multiplier effect from the higher earnings and spending power of these women would generate additional gains to the UK economy of £1.7 billion.

Flexible working is nothing special, it’s a common sense way people in desk jobs can fulfil their roles; from a laptop, from wherever they most need to be. No dramas, no fuss.

And yet, it’s also an inconvenient millennial buzz phrase, and a yoke around the HR team’s neck. This is because, by law, all businesses must deal with requests for flexible working arrangements “in a reasonable manner” but that doesn’t mean they have to grant them.

Timewise estimates that 8.7 million UK-based full time workers want to work flexibly, whether part time or more remotely.

Trust me, in time, flexible working won’t be an employee benefit for the trusted few, or a privilege that must be earned, it will be the norm for any kind of job that can be done on a computer. Going to the office will be for those who need to or want to: for the pleasure of working alongside others, for client catch-ups or for team social events.

When this happens, an employee’s success will be measured by output, which will be measured by data, and not by presenteeism, how much their boss likes them, or how loudly they can toot their own horn.

Why? Because if more employers don’t enable virtual working, parents will continue to be pushed out of the workforce and to earn less, and UK productivity figures will continue to slump.

In my six years of being a father, it has become clear to me that parents cannot realistically squeeze in the nursery/school run, the commute and work full time, let alone put in the odd hour of overtime. To do it all, they need one of these four things:

  • A 15-minute commute (the modern day equivalent of the holy grail)
  • Their kids’ schools to be located right next to their office (as if)
  • Daily childcare outside of nursery or school hours (prohibitively expensive)
  • A partner who stays at home to look after the children (not financially viable for many families)

Because our society isn’t set up to help parents bring up children while continuing down the same career path, our workforce loses all that skill and experience. Women, because they continue to be primary caregivers, put their careers on hold and return to find they have fallen behind their male peers.

More than 10 years ago, when we launched virtual assistant site Time Etc, I would never have guessed how popular virtual assistant roles would be among mothers who wanted to re-enter the workforce on their own terms. A staggering 95 per cent of our virtual assistants are women, and three quarters of them are mothers. The remaining five per cent are male, almost all of whom are fathers.

Most of our virtual assistants are university educated, and all of them have at least five years’ experience. Many have worked as personal or executive assistants for the C-Suite in FTSE 250 or AIM listed companies. After pausing their careers to have children, they didn’t feel able to continue their previous jobs and wanted to find work they could fit around their lives.

Our findings fit a UK-wide trend. The ONS says the rapid growth of self-employment has been a pronounced feature of the UK labour market in recent years. The number of self-employed grew from 3.3 million people - or 12 per cent of the labour force - in 2001 to 4.8 million - 15.1 per cent of the labour force - in 2017.

But, by failing to support flexible working - perhaps because they have trust issues, or lack faith in technology, or simply don't want to invest in software - employers are cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Instagram influencer and journalist Anna Whitehouse, aka Mother Pukka, has been campaigning for flexible working for more than two years. Talking about her Flex Appeal campaign in a blog post, she writes: "In most roles that involve sitting at a desk (and that’s a good 80% of them in the UK), it makes no odds whether you write your report at 6am, lunchtime, or midnight... But it can make a lot of difference to you. In the UK, average commuting times are 46 minutes a day, which is higher than anywhere else in the OECD. In London, it’s 56 minutes."

We got in. Number 10 Downing Street let us through security and past Winston Churchill’s favourite chair to talk about our flexible working campaign #flexappeal to the communications department. (Due to internal sign-off we can’t say anything concrete for now but once we can, you will be the first to know.) That’s lovely ‘n’ all but what are we actually doing here? In a nutshell, we’re two extremely tired, child-ravaged journalists who believe there is a better way of working for everyone. We believe flexible working isn’t a ‘nice to have’ nor is it a ‘bonus’, it’s a fundamental change to the fabric of our working lives. We believe - along with the Equality and Human Rights Commission - that it is the ‘primary way’ to bridge the Gender Pay Gap. It’s about trust, it’s about retaining talent, it’s about getting more - £156 million a year boost to the U.K. economy more according to the capital and mental well-being report - not less out of people. It’s about being done with an ‘owner and pet’ mentality in favour of looking at what people are doing, not where they are sitting. It’s a chance for businesses to streamline their workforce when they realise Janice spends most of her day stalking Tony on Facebook, while Parveet nails his to-do list in three hours. We’re not flexible working consultants, we’re not aligned to a governmental body. We’re just the man and woman on the street knocking on doors and hoping for answers. When we get answers, we share them with you. When we hear your frustrations, we link you up with others on our Work it Out forum with @pregnant_then_screwed. When we feel like chucking in the towel, we look at our kids. This is not a vanity project nor is it a ruse to flog you some #ad bog roll on the side and this is all impossible to write without sounding worthy or omitting vital chunks of the jigsaw because it’s a highly complex issue. One thing we have is an absolute, unwavering belief that there is a better way of working for employers and employees. A way that challenges a system born in the depths of the Industrial Revolution. A way that is not even revolutionary, simply evolutionary in a digital world that is willing and ready @papa_pukka

A post shared by Anna Whitehouse (@mother_pukka) on

This nonsensical attitude towards working perpetuates simply because of narrow-mindedness, and an unthinking readiness to adhere to tradition, however irrelevant. But British businesses will be forced to adapt: they are already losing talent because of their rigidity.

The companies that lose skilled women because they never feel able to return after maternity leave are hurting their own businesses, and the UK economy. I know of several companies that offer very generous maternity and paternity packages, but refuse flexible working requests when those parents try to return to work, or make them do five days' work in the space of four. It’s bizarre.

Time Etc’s growing virtual assistant army gains as employers continue to fail parents. That's because our VAs choose how often they work, when they work, and where they work from. But wouldn't it be great if parents had more options?

Personal assistant roles, like all largely desk-bound jobs, lend themselves beautifully to flexible working. If only employers could get to grips with the simple technologies that support remote working, virtual collaboration and mobile communication and get over their nine to five outlook.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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