One thing I don’t miss about the many years I spent combining office work with bringing up small children is all the sweat. By that, I mean actual anxiety sweat running down my back while crammed into a London Tube train. I was on a deadline to collect the children from nursery, but always left work too late. Why? Guilt. Everyone else was still at their desks when I snuck out — and we all knew I was a terrible employee.
After spending time with the kids, I’d check my BlackBerry, often working late into the night or on my notional days off.
In fact, what I was doing was flexible working — adjusting my work schedule to fit around my life, rather than being shoehorned into conventional office timings. What was then an unusual working pattern would now be recognised as valid — and, one hopes, would be paid to reflect the many extra hours I spent working at home. But the term and concept were popularised only 20 years ago, not long before I was running for those trains.
In the years before the pandemic, more employers had started to free people to work truly flexibly. The definition of flexible working includes (but is not limited to) shorter, compressed days, term-time working, job sharing or just making work “asynchronous” — meaning employees have the freedom to tackle their workload in their own time, not following someone else’s schedule.
I’d argue that now, more than ever, workplaces and managers need to nurture, embed and extend flexible working patterns, for the good of us all, as we head into an uncertain future. It might sound counter-intuitive to talk about the importance of working less, or at different times, just as many companies are making redundancies and doubling down on workload and productivity demands. But if we want to avoid burnout, dropout and the coming blizzard of mental-health problems, that’s exactly where we need to shift our corporate culture.
We already know that employees have worked more during the pandemic: the average working day has lengthened by 48 minutes, according to a global survey of more than three million workers by the US National Bureau of Economic Research.
So how do we stop the cycle? Some companies have already moved to a four-day week. Shorter hours are good for people and productivity. But even where that’s not possible, working from home has given many of us the tools to navigate new and helpful ways of flexible working.
A new campaign called #FlexibleFirst from WACL, which represents senior women in the advertising and communications industries, is calling for employers to be proactive in offering flexible working. This might be the key to preventing women’s advancement at work being set back decades: according to McKinsey research, one in four women in the US is considering “downshifting” her career or leaving the workforce because of the effects of the pandemic on daily life, especially the extra burdens of childcare.
But other benefits of flexible working are less obvious, given employers and managers can never know what is going on in a person’s interior life — unless they tell them. And I certainly didn’t tell. I can say now what I didn’t then: flexible work creates space to breathe. In my case, to go for walks, see friends — and allow professionals to help me manage the anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that persisted for years after a child’s near-fatal illness.
That was back when the world was not askew. How many millions of people in 2020 are going through far more difficult times?
The final, and perhaps biggest, wellbeing benefit of flexible working has suddenly become visible in lockdown. Many people have become grounded in their area — perhaps for the first time, after years or decades of rushing between home and office.
Keeping some flexibility in our working hours in future will give everyone extra time to build the ties of community. Feeling that we are part of something bigger than ourselves and having time to help others are key components of mental health. (The work of economist Richard Layard is especially good in this area.)
Like most parents, I spent hours watching sport lessons, helping with school fundraising and the church jumble sale — or just sitting in the soft play centre café, eating cake with other locals. Cumulatively, these are the hours that bind us into our communities with both strong ties of close friendship and, also important, weak ties — those friends of friends and kind people from “around”.
I work full time now. I am a manager, I rarely finish work before 7pm — and my children are young adults. But I still see the same people, some now good friends, 20 years after first pushing a pram around the neighbourhood. Flexible working works — and its benefits last a lifetime.
Isabel Berwick is the FT’s Work & Careers editor
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