18 months ago, I was commuting for 90 minutes each way to work in a job that I loved. My employer was relatively flexible when it came to working hours; I could work from home one day a week and I could build up some flexi-time each month and have an extra day off. Before becoming a mum, this was a fantastic arrangement. The job was quite challenging but I wasn’t expected to work all hours under the sun. It suited me down to the ground.
All that changed when Libby came along. I went back to work when Libby was 3 months old and suddenly, the three hours a day I spent commuting was too much. I was up at five every morning so that I could breastfeed before going to work. I didn’t get home until around six in the evening, at which point I would feed Libby and put her to bed. Work became difficult and I wasn’t coping very well; I was coping even worse with being a part-time mum.
Amazingly, not long after going back to work I was offered another job. A friend of mine was starting up an internet business and she needed someone to run it for her. As a mum herself, she understood what I was going through. It was agreed that I would work full time, 40 hours per week, and it was up to me to choose both when and where I would work. I do still have to attend meetings, but I am able to arrange those for times when my husband is available to look after my daughter. I’ve even had to travel to Paris for work; my daughter was 9 months old at the time and my employer agreed that she could come to Paris with me.
The advantages of this arrangement for me are very obvious. I now look after my daughter full time. We go to playgroup, to the park, on walks and on days out. And yet, I still have plenty of time to fit in my working hours. I work during her nap times, evenings, weekends, my husband’s days off and time that my daughter spends with family. My work is as much a part of my life as my husband, my dogs and my daughter. It is my lifestyle, a way of life and a part of me.
As an employee, my working arrangements seem incredibly grown-up. I am trusted to work, and allowed to get on with it. There is nobody looking over my shoulder to make sure that I put in the hours, or to check that what I’m doing is right. What I do have though, is an incentive scheme whereby if the company makes a profit, I get a bonus. As the only employee, I only have myself to blame if things aren’t going well. It feels rather like having my own business, which is why I put my heart and soul into it.
Aside from my own passion for the company, what are the benefits of this arrangement to my employer? Well firstly, there are notably less overheads. I provide my own working area, furniture, computer equipment and refreshments. I personally avoid the cost of a daily commute, so if I do have to go to a business meeting I never claim travel expenses.
Secondly, because of the money I save on transport and childcare, I have been able to accept a much lower salary. I took a large pay-cut to accept the role and I suspect that for the luxury of incorporating both work and children into their lifestyle, there are parents up and down the country that would be willing to do the same.
Lastly, all employers are encouraged to reduce their carbon footprint. This is often done through cycle to work schemes, travel share or lights that turn themselves off. The amount of carbon emissions that can be saved by totally wiping out the daily commute massively outweighs all of these measures.
So what are the disadvantages to employers that are associated with allowing people to work as flexibly as I do? Well, managers like to manage people. I know, because I was one. I liked to know that the people I supervised were in work, doing what they should be doing and that we would hit our key performance targets each month. If they were working from home, I worried that they were watching last night’s Eastenders instead of completing a crucial piece of work.
Conversely though, if everyone worked from home, would key performance indicators be abandoned? Would everyone stop working and start spending their days in front of daytime television? Perhaps some people would. But I can guarantee that those people wouldn’t have been performing particularly well had they been working in an office. Output can be measured through targets and performance reviews wherever your employees are based. Who knows, they might even work a little harder if they didn’t have that stressful commute every day. They might concentrate better without that nagging feeling in the back of their mind that being in that office was preventing them from seeing their children.
Admittedly, the sort of flexibility afforded to me isn’t going to work for every occupation. Some roles require people to work during office hours. Other businesses need their employees to be available to speak to their customers face to face. But here’s a novel idea in these times of austerity. Rather than making people redundant and cutting costs at the expense of employees and customers, could that money be saved in a different way? Could public and private organisations downsize their offices by affording those people whose function allowed it to work from home? Would employees consider taking a small paycut if they no longer had to pay costly childcare fees and spend thousands of pounds a year on petrol or train tickets? Would they even work a little bit harder or a little bit longer if they no longer had to spend nearly as much time getting to work as they spent there? Would they even be more productive if they were allowed to work at the times that suited them rather than the times that suited their employer?
Times are changing, technology is making remote working possible for an increasing number of roles. I’m not suggesting that the office environment is a thing of the past but maybe, just maybe, the illusive work-live balance could be looming on the horizon for more of us.