Emma Gannon is the author of a book on flexible/home workers. She says: “There’s a stereotype that flexible workers sit at home all day in their pants not really doing much.” Among her work portfolio are broadcasting, writing and charity work; “For me, the opposite is true. At times I’m the busiest I’ve ever been.” Good for busy her.
She’s also more productive and healthier, she says. This backs up recent findings from University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, which suggest that a three-day weekend could be the key to making workers happier, and simultaneously achieve more. (The idea is so seductive that last week John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said Labour might even offer a four-day week to voters in an attempt to win the next general election.)
And although she’s certainly not bragging about it, when pressed Gannon says she’s earning about three times the amount she did when she worked for The Man. “I am able to work on different projects with different people, which means that I’m not capped, in terms of what I want to achieve, or on what I can earn.”
All this is why she’s part of a hugely growing trend among workers of all ages and backgrounds to shun the nine-to-five and work more flexibly – a term that includes any pattern that isn’t the “normal” Monday to Friday working week, including job sharing, compressed hours and working from home.
A recent study by Timewise, a recruitment consultancy specialising in part-time work, and Deloitte, found that 63% of full-timers now work flexibly. A further nine million want to, but currently can’t. According to new research by workspace provider Regus, 85% of British working parents would forfeit other benefits to take up a flexible working arrangement, while 74% say they would take a different job if it offered a range of flexible working locations.
And while it’s millennials such as Gannon who are leading the flexible working charge, 72% of those aged 55+ say they want it, too.
“Flexible working is something we’ve seen work particularly well for our older workforce,” says Donna Griffiths, director of HR at Westfield Health, where more than a quarter of the workforce works flexibly. “It can be hard to adjust from working on a full-time basis to retirement after all those years of working. Reducing their hours really helps the transition.”
The trend has led to the TUC announcing, last month, that a four-day working week is a realistic goal for most people by the end of this century – an enticing thought. Is it because, with British workers pushed to the brink by phones that ping around the clock with urgent emails, in addition to the longest hours in Europe, we are finally seeking greater life balance?
Perhaps. But, surprisingly, businesses are seeing the benefit, too. “Done well it creates a win-win situation for workers and employers,” Matthew Percival, CBI Head of Employment policy, says. “Employers get access to a wider pool of people, retain employees and increase the productivity of their people. For employees it means greater freedom to organise their different responsibilities, such as family and caring.”
Flexible working is particularly appealing to working mothers. “We’re having kids later now, so the likelihood is that women have a career already,” Annie Ridout, author of The Freelance Mum: A Career Guide for Better Work-Life Balance, says. But it’s reductive to think flexible working as only benefiting parents. Childcare was only cited as a reason for working flexibly by three in 10 respondents, according to Timewise. “I have friends who do shorter weeks because they simply want a better work-life balance,” Ridout says. “They might spend that last day working on a creative project, exercising, visiting galleries and museums or just relaxing.”
Percival says flexible working functions best when it is “hard-wired into job adverts from the beginning”. However, according to Karen Mattison, co-founder of Timewise, fewer than one in 10 job adverts mentions the option of flexibility. So when should you bring it up? “That conversation is a bit of an art,” she admits. “If it’s not been mentioned by them, it’s OK to wait until they’ve made some sort of indication that they want you, such as asking to see you a second time.”
Whether you are telling a prospective new boss or your current one that you want to work in a different way, Mattison has advice. “A lot of people make the mistake of emphasising why they want flexible working, rather than how they will make it work for the business, or benefit the business,” she says.
“Don’t say you need it so that you can pick the kids up from school. Instead, focus on the 20% of the wage bill that the employer will be saving, or the growth opportunity for a junior colleague to expand into part of your role.”
After the initial chat, you need to apply formally. You only get one chance every 12 months, so you need to get it right. First check your employer’s policy: if they have one, it will set out how the request should be made. “Requests should be in writing stating the date of the request and whether any previous application has been made and the date of that application,” according to Acas.org.uk. The employer then has to reply with a decision within three months.
Assuming your request is granted, your next conversation is about money. For those reducing their hours, it often comes with a pay cut. You shouldn’t default to the assumption that rewards should be pro-rata. “In theory people should be rewarded on output,” says Lisa Unwin, co-author of She’s Back: Your Guide to Returning to Work, and founder of a company that helps women get back to work. “But we have to accept that’s often difficult to measure. Our advice is to focus the discussion first on deliverables, value added, level of responsibility – and then get to hours.”
Although there are some measurable outcomes: “One woman I worked with agreed to take on extra work when someone went on maternity leave,” Unwin adds. “Her hours remained the same and she wasn’t getting a promotion. We argued that the extra responsibilities meant she should be paid more. The employer agreed.”
Many find that “once you release the shackles of the office, there’s less structure around work” according to Anna Whitehouse, who along with her husband, campaigns against the prejudice around parents who want to work flexibly. “People want to prove they are loyal, can be trusted, and that they are good at their job,” she says. And that means they often end up working more than they might have done when they were entirely office based. She has found this herself, working 60+ hours a week. “It’s caused me mental health issues and strains on my relationship, but it’s because this is such a new way of working and we collectively haven’t figured it all out yet.”
Gannon says she has been (and still can be) guilty of overworking, too, but now sets core hours – 10am-4pm, with some home-office days, others set up for external meetings. “These aren’t set rules, but it does help me roughly structure my week,” she says. And, she adds: “I don’t do everything myself.” This means outsourcing admin to a virtual assistant (try virtalent.com), using apps that automate invoices and payments (try quickbooks.intuit.com) and project management (Trello.com). She also recommends dealing with emails in chunks, using the app Boomerang. “You can line them all up and schedule them, rather than replying as they come in. That’s such a time waster.”
But while it may be possible to do everything virtually, it’s not always desirable. “You absolutely need to get out and meet people,” Gannon says. “Sometimes a phone call or Skype conversation will do; other times you need face-to-face meetings with contacts, or other professionals in your industry.”
Find a like-minded group on a site such as meetup.com or FutureGirlCorp, or work in a co-working space, such as andco.life, which lets you hotdesk in partitioned-off areas in local cafés and bars (without you being hassled to buy continuous cups of coffee).
You could even kill two flexi-worker problems with one stone and sign up for a class. Apparently 25 % of flexible workers out of the office feel they miss out on opportunities such as training, so look at sites such as generalassemb.ly and digitalmums.com to brush up skills and make contacts.
But don’t forget the reason you wanted to work flexibly in the first place: to find greater life balance – whatever that means to you. “This idea that we all need to work every hour or every day is wrong,” Ridout says. “Actually, we all need to work a lot less.”