freelance mondays: redefining the ‘f’ word;

It’s been almost three months since I switched to a four-day working week after taking advantage of my right to request flexible working. Which means that, last week, it was time for my three-month review; in which I sat down with my line manager to discuss my new working pattern.

Now, as you’d expect from a business that is frequently ranked as one of the best in its field when it comes to diversity and inclusion, there’s quite a detailed form to fill in as part of the review process. My employer was keen to understand what was working, what needed more work, and how both I and the firm were benefitting from the arrangement.

How flexible working changed my life - Last Year's Girl

There is, I think, a bit of a misconception about flexible working; something that was highlighted for me in an article shared by a friend on Facebook in the week. Digital Mums, a social media training company, has launched a campaign to “clean up the F-word” after noting that the government’s own definition of flexible working refers to a working pattern that “suits an employee’s needs”. Digital Mums prefers a definition that also reflects the benefits to employers, citing research showing that around two thirds of employees would be more productive, and more loyal to their employers, if they were able to adopt working patterns that better reflected their lives.

Right from the start, I approached my application to work flexibly as something that would be a benefit to the business, as well as something that would “suit my needs”. I’m good at my job, especially after six years of building relationships within the business and honing a lot of very specialist knowledge; and it does nobody any favours if I’m perpetually burned out. Similarly, the ability to offer flexible working has been great from an employee retention perspective: I love my job and I find it incredibly fulfilling; but I love my other work too and, as we have already established, also need time to be creative. A shorter working week enables me to better balance these interests, improving my personal feelings of fulfilment and satisfaction from my work – and making me a more productive employee and a better person to be around nigh-on 30 hours a week.

How flexible working changed my life - Last Year's Girl

None of which is to suggest that the business is required to meet my needs at the expense of its own. The right to request flexible working, which was extended to all employees with more than six months service – not just parents and carers – in 2014 is just that: a right to request. You employer can refuse, as long as it behaves reasonably and has a sound business reason for doing so. Acas, the public industrial relations body, lists these reasons as:

  • the burden of additional costs;
  • an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff;
  • an inability to recruit additional staff;
  • a detrimental impact on quality;
  • a detrimental impact on performance;
  • a detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand;
  • insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work;
  • planned structural changes to the business.

It would have been easy, if not downright logical, for my employer to say that it was impossible, both financially and logistically, to recruit somebody to do my job for a single day a week. That they didn’t is something I’m incredibly grateful for, although I guess you could say that if the work I do wasn’t of a type often done by freelancers I wouldn’t have been looking to work flexibly in the first place. A good employer will be willing to discuss the proposal and investigate the potential for compromise where one of the sound business reasons applies.

How flexible working changed my life - Last Year's Girl

Now, I’m a wee bit hesitant to hitch my wagon so publicly to a campaign run by a website with “mums” in the name. My thing is that flexible working can, and should, be embraced by non-parents – in fact, I’d go one further and argue that that the hangover from the old right might even be part of the reason that Digital Mums has found that although seven in ten employees would like to work more flexibly, only 12% have ever asked. Framing the right to request flexible working as something that’s aimed at those with caring responsibilities puts working parents – working mums, really, because that’s how institutional sexism works – at a disadvantage, because we all know that the minute women start having babies they lose all ambition and only want to earn 71p to the masculine £1 while working a cosy three-day week and leaving in time for the school run.

Flexible working for all, by contrast, recognises that your colleagues who are parents are not the only ones with needs, interests and responsibilities that don’t always mesh with the traditional working week. It reduces the stigma that appears, from the research, to be associated with even asking the question, ultimately benefiting those who could stand to benefit the most from relying on the right. The fact that the law, and the statutory guidance, prescribes the procedure that should be followed by both employees making the request and employers considering the request goes some way to reducing this stigma, at least on paper. Re-framing the right as something with the potential to benefit both parties, as set out in the Digital Mums petition, strikes me as a logical next step.

And if the thousands of people who could stand to benefit won’t take up the mantle, I guess we’ll have to keep relying on mums to get. shit. done.

Three months in, I can say with some confidence that flexible working has changed my life. All that busywork and those professional opportunities I got so excited about in June? I would have had to have turned them down – or dropped something else – to fit them in. I’m happier, less stressed, more productive and have lots to be proud of. I have also – hey, let’s say it out loud for the first time – halved my dosage of anti-depressants. Two more tiny cuts to go – one if I’m feeling brave. I wouldn’t be in a position to attempt it if I was still working full-time.

I’m not saying that everybody reading this should phone up their boss tomorrow and announce that they are dropping a day’s work. For starters, not everybody can afford to, not every job is of the type where flexible working is an option and not every workplace can accommodate it, for legitimate reasons. But now that workplace technology has evolved to the point that many of us could do our jobs from anywhere, there is no reason not to think about whether compressed hours, flexitime or even some sort of home working arrangement could change your life too.