Last week I shared a Campaign story on LinkedIn that announced my inclusion in this year’s Timewise Power List, which shines a light on flexible working in leadership roles. The response I received was instant and powerful – a tsunami of emotion from men and women who all had their own stories to share. What struck me the most, and which I hear again and again whenever I share that I work part-time, is that there remains to this day an enormous stigma around flexible working – and that stigma is felt even more keenly by men.
Wacl has done a huge amount of research for its #FlexibleFirst campaign into the fact that women stay in the workplace for longer if they can work more flexibly. They reach more senior positions, which in turn contributes towards closing the gender pay gap, ultimately delivering gender equality.
Practically speaking, we can make strides to close the gender pay gap only if more fathers work flexibly. But a lot of men reach out to me and confide that they feel a huge weight of stigma and are nervous about asking for flexible work.
Like women, they are worried they might miss out on that next promotion, or appear less committed to their role or the company. The problem with this stigma is that women are therefore more likely to come forward and work reduced days or hours to manage the domestic set-up, when, in fact, a more equal balance might be both mum and dad work four-day weeks.
So it is this dogged stigma that is holding us all back from gender parity in the workplace. And it’s this stigma that I want us to tear down, because it’s tripping us up everywhere.
The key problem is that there is a gross misconception that if you don’t work five days a week, it sends a signal that your job is not your highest priority.
I would argue that is a misnomer, because everyone has a huge bundle of priorities in our life. We have loved ones, our health, caring responsibilities – we are essentially a living, breathing mix of numerous priorities. I think that since the pandemic, we recognise much better that we are whole people who have full lives. You can be utterly committed to your job, but still have other things going on that you care about and want to pay attention to.
Though I work four days a week, I think about my job all the time and I care deeply about the success of the agency and its talent. But the idea that if you reduce the literal hours you’re available for work by 10 or 20%, your job is therefore less of a priority for you, is grossly outdated.
Lots of people have confided in me that they also work four days a week, but they try to keep it a bit on the down-low. They don’t put on their out of office, they try to give the appearance that they’re available all the time.
When I first started working part-time I also fell into this trap, because I felt guilty that I wasn’t available on Fridays. I was determined to keep it a secret from clients in case they felt I was less committed to the success of my business or theirs. But I quickly learnt that it drains your energy and actually makes you less effective. Now I have the confidence to be very clear about my boundaries. The issue is not about working four days versus five, the issue is around the stigma of flexible working.
This stigma is holding us back from harnessing talent from both men and women at a point in their careers where they have an enormous amount to contribute. Not only that, it’s also part of the burn-out problem we are all too familiar with.
More balanced working allows people to stay in the industry for longer and not drop out or burn out. We need to support people better to create more sustainable working patterns, which ultimately leads to sustainable careers.
So how do we break down the stigma? Like Timewise is doing, shine a light on role models who already do it and talk more openly about our needs and ambitions. This is a grown-up conversation, between employer and employee and, whatever the solution, it has to work for both parties.
The pandemic has opened everyone’s eyes into the benefit of working different hours, in different locations. It’s amplified that really necessary element of trust between employees and their companies, where everyone’s working patterns have been thrown all over the shop, but people are still bringing what they need to bring and performing brilliantly in their work.
So it’s time to shake off the part-time stigma altogether – and let all of us work in a way that acknowledges that we are "whole" people, with messy, complicated, roller-coaster lives, and trust that we will all bring our A-game to the table, regardless of what days or hours we’re officially signed up for in the Outlook calendar.
Top tips for being a successful part-timer
Be confident in setting clear boundaries and sticking to them as much as possible. Constantly moving boundaries are confusing for those around you, as well as exhausting for yourself.
Having said that, nothing in this world is set, so decide where you can build in reasonable flexibility. I don’t work Fridays, but I will make myself available for pitch meetings if necessary, and the team is aware of this.
If you are in a role where unforeseen issues come up that you need to know about, then be clear with the team on how you can be contacted. If they know they can reach out with a call or text, then you don’t need to be looking at your inbox all day.
Anything that is available to the leader should also be available to others to create and foster an inclusive culture. Therefore, everyone should have the opportunity to apply for flexible working and there should be commitment from the agency to review each case on an individual basis.
It’s important to have regular reviews, to see how the working pattern is meeting expectations for both sides.
For leaders working part-time it is a good exercise in delegation and trusting your team. It made me much better at that than previously.
Culturally, you have to create an environment where people are trusted and personally accountable for what they bring to the table.
Sara Tate is chief executive of TBWA\London