As a mum of three I've spent a lot of time with other parents and, inevitably, the subject of how easy it is to juggle work with family time comes up. I am often surprised and disappointed by how many brilliantly talented individuals are lost to the workplace because the impact on family life is too great. And in the majority of cases it is still mothers who sacrifice their career - or at least put it on hold - to bear the majority of the child-raising responsibility.
One of my core beliefs is that diversity is key to success when growing and running a business. With diversity not only of gender but also age and background, businesses thrive. With it comes a breadth of opinion, experience, and worldview. But the reverse is also true: technology is the key to diversity. Sound confusing? It's actually a very simple formula.
One of the biggest thorns in the side of workplace diversity is the propensity for mothers to quit work to raise children, and never come back. A large chunk of the female workforce is often lost a key stages in people's careers and diversity takes a massive hit. But with advances in tech, this needn't be the case anymore. A flexible approach to work combined with the tech available to the general user these days means that people can work effectively from all locations and more so than ever before.
However, tech advances alone are not enough. With this must come a sea change in employers' perceptions of remote working. Now there's no excuse. We have the way, but currently not the will.
Being a parent will always involve increased pressure on time and making tough decisions, but the opportunities to do both well are greater than ever before. Less than a decade ago, it was very difficult to stay at home and work remotely effectively. While nearly everyone has had computers and internet access at home for the best part of 20 years, technology such as fast broadband, cloud-based storage and video conferencing have really only become mainstream in the last five years. The availability of technology has caught up with the times, but the attitudes of many employers have not.
This problem also exacerbates the already-concerning wage gap between men and women. According to a recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), returning mothers earn roughly 2% lower for each year that they have taken out of employment. This relationship is stronger, at 4% per year, for women with at least A-level qualifications. Another damning report, by consultancy PwC, estimated that fully addressing the career break penalty for returning mothers could add £1.7 billion to the UK's economic output.
The notion that time spent in the office is a measure of hard work or productivity is anachronistic and tired, and the sooner employers move away from it the better. The choice is no longer a binary one, between working or homemaking, and this all-or-nothing approach is counter-productive. The pervasiveness of work-related tech now means that people should be free to manage their own time and location, and focus on results not presence.
And the precedent is already there. Just think of the swathes of business processes that we now outsource: HR, IT, and accounting, for example. But in many organisations an uncertainty and suspicion still exists when core employees request to work from home. This seems counter-productive and counter-intuitive to me.
Previously, the primary carer would often exit the workplace entirely while they raised their children, but now employers do not have to lose talent unnecessarily, with the ability to work remotely being greater than ever. Those who have grown up with technology are leading the push for flexibility. They are used to being always available and don't see why they should be tethered to a desk. Organisations will need to change and this could benefit parents even more than those driving it.
The availability of mobile tech also means that returners can more easily stay in touch with advancements in their fields. No longer will those who have taken a long time out miss seven-to-10 years of technological and sector advancement, as they will have been tuned in throughout, albeit remotely.
I believe the opportunities for flexible - and effective - working that now exist for everyone are greater than they have ever been. But a societal mind-set change is imperative. For companies to attract the best talent, they will have to adjust and offer the flexibility needed, and soon demanded, by a growing chunk of the workforce.