This week the UK Government announced a £5m fund to help mothers return to work after a career break. This could be a fantastic opportunity for UK Companies to access a talent pool that goes entirely overlooked for 90%* of jobs advertised. As Justine Roberts, Chief Executive of Mumsnet says, "Whether £5m will be enough to tackle the discrimination returning mothers face is moot, what's crucial is that workplaces embrace flexible working, which is what many parents tell us they most need."
In putting this money behind working mothers, the Government is very publicly acknowledging we have a problem that needs to be addressed. Yet it should not be beyond the capability of this generation to solve this problem and allow women who want to work, who are qualified and capable of contributing to the UK economy, back into their careers even with childcare commitments.
But flexible working, job sharing, part-timers are all words that carry a certain stigma, or stereotype. For workplaces to really embrace flexible working, what needs to change?
Flexible working itself requires highly sought-after skills, and we should not be afraid to draw this to the attention of recruiters and employers. We will need to prove ourselves and the value we bring. We are a flexible working PR and Communications consultancy, and here are some of the lessons we have learnt from our own experience:
Nothing focuses the mind, like being under time pressure and knowing you have a finite number of hours or days in which to get your work done. When I think back to my school days and the exams I sat, from the moment the exam started until the adjudicator called time I wrote furiously, I made sure I had allowed time to answer each question and I got it all done before the final call. And note, I got it all done.
For the flexi-working parent juggling a job and childcare, gone are the lunch breaks, social coffees, lengthy chatter with colleagues and nipping to the gym at lunchtime. Knowing you can't stay late to catch up means you get stuff done and get out the door! I lose count of the number of times I get a text from my husband saying he needs to stay late to finish something, for it to transpire he's been out for lunch that day or caught up with a colleague for a coffee mid-afternoon.
I am not saying either approach is right or wrong. But I am saying that if you have to get out that door, you get the work done and don't allow yourself too many distractions.
I was extremely fortunate after returning from maternity leave, to be offered a senior role in a job share. My colleague sat down with me in the first week and said "I have a competitive nature, but I realise for this to work I need to keep that firmly under wraps." A job share will only work if the two people work as one. There can be no room for one-upmanship or point scoring. You have to trust and be trusted. On the days when you are not in the office, your job share partner represents you, your professional opinions and decisions. You are accountable for her decisions and she for yours. You learn the true value of open and honest communication, and you build genuine trust.
Organisational skills, creativity and problem solving
For a job share to work, you need process and structure. If you are only in the office for three days a week, you need to make those three days count. You can't spend two days searching through emails to find out what happened to everything you were working on last week. So you need to put in place a structure and processes to ensure you are both at your most effective from the moment you walk into the office. That not only requires extreme organisational skills but also creativity and problem solving.
Putting in the discretionary effort
There is often a perceived misconception that when a colleague with childcare commitments leaves at 5 or earlier, that's her clocked off for the day. In my experience, quite the reverse is true. As I sit here at 23:10 on a Thursday night with another hour of work to do, I accept this is the way I need to work if I want to be there to collect my son from nursery, do bathtime and see him into bed. Most of the working mums I know work weekends, week nights and during nap times. That is not to say we do anything different from colleagues who don't have family commitments or indeed from what we did before we had kids. I have always had the BlackBerry close at hand and brought work home. But don't assume that when someone has to be out the door by 5, it is a sign of poor commitment. In fact the commitment we feel to our employers and our careers increases when we are given the opportunity to work flexibly.
So if you are considering participating in the Government's Fund and bringing in a part-time or job share employee, take comfort that these are the skills you will also be bringing into your organisation.
Jane Johnson is Founder and Executive Director of FEEL Communications. A specialist flexible working consultancy for the Communications and PR industry.
*Hire Me My Way campaign data