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Have laptop, will work bloody hard, says Lisa Williams

Many businesses have a not-in-my-backyard approach to family values and flexible working, and it needs to change...


I hate working from home: my laptop gives me a sore neck, my willpower is weak while the lure of my kitchen is strong, and, instead of being able to yell out questions to the team, I have to use something called ‘Google’.

But if it means I can sometimes leave work early to pick up my son from the childminder’s, give him a bath and put him to bed, then I’ll do it. If it means I can bridge a gap in childcare because my childminder’s on holiday and my aunt has offered to step in, but she lives far away and doesn’t want to get caught in rush-hour traffic, then I’ll do it. And if it means I can save travel time by heading straight home after meetings rather than traipsing back to the office for 15 minutes of bum-on-seat time, then absolutely, sign me up.

But I’m lucky. I work for a start-up, with understanding co-founders who know that flexible working also works both ways. For every minute of the ‘traditional’ working day that I spend doing a nursery pick-up or working from home, there’s at least a minute (and often more) of my own time in which I’m building up our Instagram account, networking with anyone who’ll listen, and writing articles. Because when you find work that works for you, you want to keep it.

Flexible working (and by this I mean working from home, flexitime, job-sharing, going part-time and working unconventional hours) has its detractors. First of all, it is not always suitable to every career. A chef can’t oversee dinner service via Skype, nor can a barrister use Slack to defend someone in court. Although, bless, the tech world HAS come up with this Segway-meets-iPad concoction which aims to give employees a ‘presence’ in the office while working from home (which is great until you get locked in the cupboard).

Marissa Mayer famously abolished working from home when she became CEO of Yahoo, saying employees were not doing enough work when left to their own devices. She also argued that, although productivity did increase while working from home, collaboration and innovation did not; apparently citing the fact Yahoo’s weather app was conceived by two engineers sitting next to each other, not just connected by a VPN.

I was told by the CEO of a huge business, the majority of whose employees are women, that he didn’t allow or approve of working from home, ‘because whenever you phone them, you hear their shopping bleeping through the tills at Sainsburys’.

Yes, there will be people who take the piss. They’re the ones who say, ‘I’m working from home, in inverted commas,’ while making an obnoxious bunny-ears gesture with both hands.

But aren’t those the same people who spend 45 minutes doing the coffee round? Or who’ve downloaded WhatsApp Desktop so they can message their mates on the sly? (Yes this does exist. Sorry, bosses).

These slackers should be dealt with accordingly, whether in a standard- or flexible-working arrangement, leaving those who want to work hard and build businesses, while creating some kind of lasting memories of family life, to get on with it.

The pay gap between men and women widens consistently every year for 12 years after the first child is born. And one of the main reasons for this is because women aren’t getting the promotions or progressing with their careers at the same rate as men. The current rules around flexible working are not robust enough (employees can request flexible working but employers can just as easily refuse it), and attitudes need to change.

Anna Whitehouse, who blogs under the name Mother Pukka and who is currently championing the issue as part of her brilliantly-named ‘Flex Appeal’ campaign, puts it well: ‘This isn't about ‘mummies wanting to see more of their little ones'. This is a people issue. This is a talent issue and this is about helping businesses retain that talent and make some top dollar.’

And it’s not just mothers, either. With the increase in equal parenting, hands-on dads and stay-at-home fathers, flexible arrangements will come to benefit all parents. And businesses, too, who can improve their staff retention rates and productivity, and do the right thing by their employees.

Businesses often pay lip service to family values while simultaneously making life difficult for employees who are parents. This NIMBY-like double standard was highlighted by a recent survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which found that 84% of British businesses said they supported pregnant women and those on maternity leave, but 77% of mothers said they had had a negative or discriminatory experience at work. This doesn’t add up.

The EHRC has launched its Working Forward campaign, asking businesses to pledge to make their workplace ‘the best it can be’ for new parents, and this includes offering flexible working practices. You can find out more, and businesses can sign the pledge, here.

I’ve signed it myself. Because a sore neck is a small price to pay for progress.