Flexible work – does it make sense for an organisation?

Surely it is easier to employ a real woman?

I went to a conference at work recently – 60 or 70 senior people from my part of our organisation. One of the topics was how to improve the proportion of senior women (as an aside, I found it pretty amusing that all the men at my table were shocked by the statistics – 16% women at our level – when we were at a conference with (gasp) 16% women).

We had a fabulous speech from one woman who had made it to very senior levels (more senior than nearly everyone in the room) which outlined a few home truths. The most fascinating thing, for me, is that this was her second time with our organisation. The first time, she had left in disgust after coming back from maternity leave to a nothing job, with no desk, no job title, and being made to feel completely invisible as the organisation couldn’t figure out what to do with someone part time. Her children are now older, so she is willing to work a very full time job (although she takes more school holidays), and more importantly, she has the self confidence to demand what she wants out of a role – self confidence that isn’t easy to have coming back from maternity leave somewhat sleep deprived. But she did a lot of soul searching before coming back to an organisation that had basically discarded her 10 years before.

The powerful point about her story for me, was the importance of thinking about stages of life when thinking about flexible work. The woman who is looking for a very part time role now is probably a great asset to an organisation now. But she also has the potential to be a much greater asset later – her children will grow older, she will have more headspace to take on something more challenging and full time. And if you make it hard for her now, you’re not going to reap that reward later when she is ready.

We had a brainstorming session, and so many people said that they were all for flexible work, but the roles in their teams just couldn’t be done that way. It is much  harder to organise roles part time than full time. It takes more imagination. But you expand your talent pool enormously – in the short term a bit, but in the long term an enormous amount.

Edited to add a link to the article Suze pointed to in the comments below.

  6 comments for “Flexible work – does it make sense for an organisation?

  1. November 1, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    There’s a very long article on the Guardian website today about the Political editor of the Observer giving up her job to spend ore time with her 2yo. Interesting.

  2. November 1, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    “I went to a love in at work recently” – you cannot imagine the horror that would (and does) ensue in similar attempts at my own workplace in general!

    Flexible working, however, is another matter within our particular division. It helps that 80% of us are women and that there’s only one male senior manager (me), though as a small division I suspect that there are limits to how much flexibility we can cope with.

  3. November 1, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    P.S. Actually, that’s truncated by war breaking out next door.

  4. November 1, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    That article was very interesting, but very familiar…

    I went and took a look at her new blog: http://usedtobesomebody.blogspot.com/, and found this remark a couple of posts down.

    women doing deals from the kitchen with small child underfoot will usually try to hide the fact they’re not in the office in case people think it’s unprofessional.
    But doing deals worth millions in a lapdancing club full of half-naked women is accepted practice in the City. Ditto doing business over a two-bottle lunch, or in the pub: so long as you get the right results, absolutely fine. It couldn’t possibly be that flexibility is more often applied to a classically blokey environment than to a commonly female one, could it?

  5. November 2, 2009 at 4:06 pm

    The company that currently employs me (a venerable old engineering firm that got acquired by a holding company 2 years ago) has laid off/outsourced so many jobs in the last 2 years that I can’t help but wonder at what you’ve written here. If a company’s going to invest in a person now, hoping for payout later … that means they anticipate a “later.” It just seems so unlikely that a person would have a 10 year career in any one company — unlikely that the person would stay; unlikely she’d survive all uncoming layoffs/restructures/etc.

  6. November 3, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Jennifer (p) I’m lucky enough to work for a company that is still talking about investing for the future… but the thought did cross my mind that our company had actually got the better part of the deal – we got my colleague at the point in her career when she was ready again for the full time job, without having to make any tradeoffs.

    Of course that presupposes that you get bad value for a woman working flexibly – and I think you get great value. My colleague would have been an asset to the company when she returned after maternity leave, working part time. But that’s a subject for another post (which I’ve probably tried to write a few times already!).

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