Flexible working – two very simple words that can have a huge impact on your quality of life. I should know, if it wasn't for flexible working, I wouldn't be able to live the life that I do. Working remotely, travelling the world – those are luxuries that come with a flexible working lifestyle. But there's so much more to it. As I've discovered over the last year, flexible working is absolutely vital for so many people. It can be the decider for parents being able to both work around their children. For businesses, it can give them the chance to support their staff through the hardest times. And for those struggling, provide them with a way to keep working while they get back on their feet. If it wasn't for flexible working, I would never have been able to escape domestic violence, while still keeping a job I loved.
Why are we talking about flexible working?
A few weeks ago MP Helen Whately introduced a bill in UK Parliament calling for flexible working to be default for all employees and for this to be included in employment contracts. The bill takes into account that the idea of the 40-hour/5 day working week suited a time when households had one primary earner. But times have changed and now most households will have more than one income, and both parents often want to, or have to work. The economic climate means it's simply not an option for many families to have one person staying at home to look after the children. But this does mean that people are looking for more flexibility than ever.
- Read: Flexible working should be default, says MP Helen Whately
- Read: Helen Whately: Employers should make all jobs flexible by default
Now Whately is arguing that unless business-owners have good reason to enforce specific working hours, that employers should introduce flexible working to every job. It's a huge change and one that could be hugely beneficial to the UK workforce. No longer would we be stuck in a patriarchy that celebrates men as the breadwinners while women are penalised for being able to work less hours due to childcare. How many women have missed out on career opportunities because they had to pick up their kids at a certain time or they couldn't go on that business trip? How many people have had to use their holiday time up because they weren't allowed to work from home?
But does flexible working actually work?
Flexible working is already happening all over the world and has shown huge success. New Zealand has reported a huge increase in productivity. Working less days for the same pay made staff even more efficient and engaged with their work. Malaysia and South Africa are areas where remote working and "home office" are becoming more common and this has had a huge impact on terrible traffic problems. They've also introduced in-office childcare and flexi-time to many businesses as a way of bringing more women into the workforce. Germany faced strikes by workers who demanded flexible working which have pushed the country to find more of a balance. I'll talk more about this later on. And finally, Japan is using flexible working as a way of engaging the 600,000 young unemployed people and to encourage them to contribute to the economy.
Why is it so important to me?
I was lucky when I moved to Germany and found a role that offered flexible working and had a big focus on work-life balance, encouraging downtime as much as working time. This was actually the deciding factor for me taking the job. I was offered another role around the same time which offered more money, but it was clear that the company offered a very different working environment. I've been in offices where the pressure is immense for very little reward, where your workload isn't reflected in your pay. Where every single day you feel drained before you even arrive in the office, you feel guilty for taking toilet and tea breaks. When you're made to feel guilty for refusing to take on yet more work outside your working hours.
One thing that is very important to me is always maintaining a separation between my job and my life. While my job is important to me and I will work hard for any role I take on. I am not defined by my job and my personal life will always take priority. It's important to me that I find companies that understand this. I know I'm immensely privileged to be in a position where I can be picky about jobs and that not everyone has this opportunity. But I do think it is important that we are given the space – in any job role – to shape a job around our life. We were not put on this earth to slave away until we die, we were put here to live. Sometimes life gets in the way and we need that flexible working to fit our careers around our lives.
How flexible working saved me from domestic violence
When my relationship broke down and my partner became increasingly violent towards me, I felt trapped. I was living in a country away from friends and family. And I didn't know how to get out of the situation. It had reached a point where I was at risk every time I walked into my apartment. I realised I had to do something. Working for a company that offered flexible working had already helped me on various occasions. Including the times when I had been attacked by my boyfriend and had been unable to go into the office because of my injuries. At one point I had to work from home for a whole week. I physically didn't have the strength to travel to work and was in so much pain.
Things came to a head one day and I realised it was now or never. I had to leave the office to go home, pack and leave while he wasn't there. After some pre-booked holiday, I was able to continue working remotely from the UK and to stay far away from a man who had become increasingly dangerous. I didn't feel safe to be in Germany any longer and my company respected that. Had it not been for flexible working, I wouldn't have a job. More than that, I would have lost my job at the time when I needed the stability and support of my colleagues the most. Had I not had such an understanding team around me, I could still be in that awful situation. Having access to flexible working saved me from domestic violence, and potentially saved my life.
A step forward for the worker bees
I know that not every situation is as dramatic as mine was. But it's important to realise that everyone has their own reasons for wanting flexible working. That every reason has a huge impact on their quality of life. Whether that means childcare and women not wanting to be "homemakers" or simply not having that as an option. Or it might mean something as simple as changing your working hours to make your commute a bit more bearable. Having days where you work from home because the car breaks down or you're getting a food shop delivered.
There's so many small ways that this could affect everyone's lives. It could give us back our freedom and control of our work-life balance. I know I could never go back to rigid hours and a strict working environment after flexible working. This change could mean a huge step away from the patriarchy. A step towards creating a workforce where women are celebrated for their work. Where women are given every opportunity and are finally are paid equally. Where women are no longer penalised because they also maintain a home and raise children.
I'd love to know what you guys think about flexible working – could this impact your life?