This week is the annual Solace Summit, where my colleagues and I have spent all week in Birmingham, making the most of the opportunity to network and meet with people from all over the local government sector at all levels.
While I love conference week and relish the opportunity to spend quality time immersed in the world of local authority working, for the last seven years I have always felt torn between my professional and domestic lives. On the one hand I’m a member of the Solace corporate leadership team, but on the other I’m a mum of two young children. Spending almost a whole week away from home during the event doesn’t come without its challenges (and sense of guilt).
That said, this is the first year since my children were born that I have not felt the same depth of conflict of leaving them to work away from home. The reason for this is my revolutionised view of flexible working initiated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has totally transformed my broader work/life balance.
By way of background, I was brought up in an ‘attendance culture’ environment by my parents. They both had careers and worked full time during my school years. There was no such thing as a ‘duvet-day’ in our house. We were inadvertently packed off to school with chicken pox, stomach bugs and colds and even my two-week post-operative recuperation period, following the removal of my adenoids (aged seven), was spent sharpening pencils in my mum’s classroom cupboard, while she worked as a secondary school teacher.
These formative years solidified my view of the working world and the importance of being ‘at work’, sometimes to the detriment of family commitments or self care. Probably unsurprising then, that some years later I would find myself in an interview for my first ‘proper job’, with a global executive recruitment firm, obediently signing a waiver to agree to work in excess of 40 hours a week.
While the world of work has undoubtably changed over recent years and the increase in flexible working policies has supported a change for the better, it took a global pandemic to shift my deep-seated view of the world, in this regard. Solace has always been a family friendly organisation with flexible working policies, but it took much more than a policy to break a habit of a lifetime for me.
While I will never forget the horrors of the pandemic, the sacrifices made and the many lives lost, I do reflect on how the challenging circumstances did force me to recognise that my work/life balance (or lack thereof) was not healthy for me or for my children. The pandemic drove me to realise the benefits of flexible working and luckily for me I work in an industry where flexible working and home working is possible, and I work for a company where it is not only allowed but encouraged, modelled and celebrated.
Coincidentally, this year, the Solace Summit coincides with National Work Life Week, an initiative led by Working Families. The charity’s purpose is to promote the importance of flexible working and work/life balance.
The team at Working Families have created a 2022 Working Families Index (in partnership with Talking Talent) to highlight why it’s more important than ever to make flexible and family-friendly working a priority.
The index shows families are struggling financially. The cost of living crisis has exacerbated an already difficult financial climate in which to raise a family, with three in five parents or carers reporting a worsening of the situation over the last three years.
The index also shows flexible working fosters loyalty and improves retention, with parents and carers twice as likely to stay with companies who support family life.
Of course, there are always pitfalls to watch out for; the index still points to cultural concerns with flexible workers reporting working extra hours because of expectations or workload and a resistant ‘part time penalty’, whereby part time workers – often women – are still struggling more when it comes to securing career progression opportunities.
The benefits are clear when flexible working is implemented effectively but as I’ve experienced personally, its not just about getting the right policies in place, the change needs to be a more fundamental shift in culture, while also balanced with practicality of getting the job done. Not all jobs can be effectively delivered virtually and we need to remember that. It also needs to be recognised that organisations and employees are still learning in this regard – we’re still in the early days of this shift in working practice.
As part of the National Work Life campaign, Working Families do suggest actively promoting your existing policies and procedures, but you must go a step further, to achieve real success. They endorse the benefits of ‘leading from the front’; using your CEO and senior leadership team to model their own flexible working practices for your staff. Not only does this ‘give permission’ metaphorically to those who feel they need it, but it also highlights the benefits that diverse experience can bring to an organisation.
The charity advises using National Work Life week as a springboard to get the conversation going in your workplace. They suggest running webinars, seminars and events bringing flexible working options to life using lived-experience stories from staff, customers and partners.
Don’t assume one size fits all, flexible working is about more than just remote or hybrid working. At Solace, the senior leadership team is meeting with our staff engagement group in the coming weeks and one item on the agenda is recruitment and retention. Our flexible working policies are on the table for discussion. From our perspective, no idea is too big or too small…its all up for debate and one size is unlikely to fit all.
With robust support for your line managers, clear policies and a supportive culture, led from the top down, it’s clear flexible working can benefit both your organisation and your employees.
Solace president Joanne Roney spoke publicly last week about existing difficulties in recruitment and retention in local government being exacerbated by yet another period of austerity and cuts and the cost of living crisis.
We need to attract the best talent to local government and it’s at times like these where we need to pull together as a sector and promote the benefits of a career in the sector.
Flexible working is something many local authorities already do well, but do we leverage this to its maximum potential, along with all the other selling points the sector can offer? Can you take your approach even further and how do you promote flexible working to support recruitment in your local authority? Is there more you can do?
Well, its 10.30pm and well past my bedtime, so I’ll finish there. Today I saw my little girl voted in as class counsellor in a special assembly at school. The first politician in the family perhaps? I feel extremely grateful to have been able to pop out to school to witness this moment and I know what it meant to my daughter, to have me there too. Priceless.
Jessica Mullinger is Director of Interim Management at Solace in Business.