Who is holding the baby?

Updated: Aug 9

READ Are family-friendly policies fair to non-parents?

Yes, they absolutely are. The organisation which is truly family-friendly is so because it is people-friendly to its bones. Everyone is respected and included, whatever their caring responsibilities or commitments outside work.

Flashback to the late ‘90s, and you would have found me campaigning for flexible working for parents - by which, in truth, I meant mothers. They were the people who most needed the accommodation. But the evidence quickly mounted that, rather than as an accommodation for a minority in the workforce, flexibility worked best for parents when it worked well for everyone. Flexibility well-managed and well-supported was, and continues to be, the marker of a good place to work and of high-performing people.

One of the first large employers to get this was Lloyds TSB, who introduced reason-neutral flexible working in 2002. Competitors watched and learned.

In 2008, Working Families published the findings of a research collaboration with Cranfield School of Management (1). The learning was clear. There a positive relationship between flexible working and individual performance. And, flexible working was seen as an appropriate method of working and was culturally acceptable when it was available to all employees regardless of their personal circumstances. Greater cultural resistance was found in organisations where the actual take-up of flexible working was dominated by certain types of employee, such as parents of young children.

So I began prefacing my campaigning messages by saying, “This may seem counter-intuitive, but as a campaigner for parents at work, I want flexible working to be available to everyone.” Government finally caught up with employer good practice and extended the right to request flexible working to all employees in 2012.

But that still leaves the sometimes tricky question of who gets to leave at 3pm to pick up their in-real-life baby, and who is left holding the metaphorical one at work. How to avoid resentment at the special treatment which parents receive?

At the whole-organisational level, the answer includes well-thought-through communications, reinforcing flexibility as a key underpinning of a culture which supports everyone, whatever the demands of their lives outside work. Using “real-models” brings this to life. Assessing managers by how satisfied their team members are with their work-life balance, makes it serious for everyone. The message is that flexibility supports inclusion, and that inclusion supports high performance in a great place to work.

At the team level, what I have seen work very well is team-based protocols. The organisation provides the overarching flexible working policy - the simpler, the better. The team leader sets the deliverables and any non-negotiables (opening hours to the public, an obvious example). Team members are respected for the knowledge they have of what has to be done, when and how, to meet their objectives. Commitments and responsibilities beyond work are included in the mix. It’s not set in stone - it’s worth the team revisiting its protocol every six months or so, to keep up with changes in the organisation and in the lives of colleagues. The outcome is flexibility which works for that team and the people within it, as well as its clients or customers. It also delivers more broadly for the organisation, supporting both its business and inclusion objectives.

1 Flexible Working and Performance: summary of findings. Cranfield School of Management and Working Families, 2008

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