Kirsty Holden loved her fast-paced job as an administrative assistant in the legal industry. Ambitious and highly organised, she practiced a ‘right first time’ attitude.
It was a role that Kirsty thrived in and felt great pride for, and she was especially proud to work in what she thought was a forward-thinking and supportive environment.
However, by the time she had become a mum of two after more than five years years at the company, it was a job that eventually became a nightmare – leaving her often tearful and overwhelmed, as she tried to balance motherhood with full-time work.
‘My anxiety was sky high,’ remembers Kirsty. ‘I was juggling everything and creating spreadsheets about who would pick up my children. It was simply unsustainable.’
It wasn’t for want of trying to find a balance either, as she had asked for flexible working following each pregnancy but both initial requests to work part-time were turned down – although eventually granted on appeal.
At one point, Kirsty was even told: ‘You should have thought about this before you had kids’.
Talking about her experience, the mum-of-two recalls how the process eventually made her ill and says she ‘lost the love for the job and respect for my managers and those who made me question my abilities’.
Although the right to ask for flexible working was first introduced in the UK in 2003, it’s appeared in several guises since. Initially only applicable to parents of children under six or to disabled children aged under eighteen and some carers, by 2014, it had been opened up to include all employees – as long as they had 26 weeks of continuous employment.
Now, the government is currently in consultation to amend the arrangements again, this time allowing for all employees the right to request it from day one. This proposal forms part of a broader July 2019 government initiative called the Good Work Plan: Proposals to support families consultation.
However, for many, being given the right and being granted the request are two totally different things.
Estate agent Alice Thompson made headlines recently when she won a sex discrimination claim against her employers after they refused to allow her time to clock off early to collect her new baby from nursery.
Alice ended up being awarded over £180,000 – to cover loss of earnings, pension contributions, injury to feelings and interest – after a tribunal ruled that the company’s insistence on a 6pm finish placed her at a ‘disadvantage’.
And while many of us might assume that navigating our way through a pandemic would impact the way some employers approached flexible working, research by MFH International has revealed that even during lockdown when parents had no alternative other than to work around children and homeschooling, nearly half of employers were said to be unsupportive.
Their findings also highlighted that 42% of those surveyed felt their employer failed to offer flexible working options to help with homeschooling, while 13% had to take unpaid leave to support their children with homeschooling. In addition, almost a quarter of parents were not confident enough to ask for or did not consider asking for increased flexibility to help them do their job and homeschool.
While the government claim their new proposal will open flexible working options to an extra 2.2million individuals, the ramifications of lockdown working has left many questioning whether it will actually work.
Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Advisor at the CIPD (The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and professional body for HR), believes the key to success lies in organisations having senior leaders who are supportive of flexible working.
‘They must role model different ways of flexible working themselves, and say this is the norm in this organisation, and it’s for everyone,’ she explains. ‘’Training line managers to effectively manage flexible workers will also be helpful.
‘There is evidence that suggests performance and productivity levels have remained stable [since the pandemic] and, in some cases, have improved. That hasn’t been just for certain types of workers; it’s been across the board because of the restrictions.’
Professor Emma Parry from Cranfield School of Management agrees that it will come down to a change of mindset and organisational culture. ‘The fear is that we will see many of these requests refused and therefore no real change to people’s ability to work flexibly,’ she says.
Explaining why she first requested part-time work, going down to a three-day week after having her first child in 2011, Kirsty recalls: ‘First and foremost it was because of the expense of childcare. Like many, it wasn’t worth me going back financially to have to pay most of it back in childcare.’
She adds that she didn’t want her little one to be in childcare all day, every day, and, as a mum, she didn’t want to miss out on key events. ‘I wanted to be there for my kids and do everything that my parents couldn’t do,’ she says.
When her request was finally approved on appeal, Kirsty moved into the part-time arrangement. Then in 2014, after she’d returned to work after having her second child, she found the pressure of working, commuting and managing her home commitments taking its toll.
With her eldest at pre-school, and the youngest at a private nursery on the other side of town, life had soon become a continual, heart-thumping battle against the clock and Kirsty knew she could no longer cope.
‘I could not sustain the level of craziness any longer,’ she recalls.
Although concerned there was already ‘a mark’ on her record having asked for flexibility previously, this time, Kirsty requested term-time working, meaning she would work during the pre-school term and have school holidays off to look after her children.
Aware some might argue that such a working pattern would be a logistical nightmare for her employer, Kirsty says she knew what she requested was possible. Her company was openly looking to decrease their staff numbers, so reducing her working hours should not have been an issue.
However, as feared, her proposal was rejected. ‘Their reason for not agreeing to it was that other people would want it too. It was seen as a luxury,’ Kirsty explains.
Unwilling to accept the decision, she consulted her union and pushed for a formal appeal.
By then, work had become a nightmare, with Kirsty remembering that during the appeal meeting, ‘I was constantly crying; it was horrible. It probably helped them have evidence that I was not coping.’
While the formal appeal saw her request granted, sadly her working life remained stressful.
‘They didn’t see the point in me having a desk because I wasn’t there all the time,’ she says. ‘It was horrible, I didn’t feel part of the team, and I had to work out of a box. It was making me ill.’
Eventually, Kirsty referred herself for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and, within six months, resigned. ‘I realised through the CBT that none of it was my fault; all I’d done was have kids.’
Three years on and Kirsty now runs a business for female solopreneurs. ‘I’m supporting other women to build a business around their life instead of having a life around somebody else’s business,’ she explains. ‘As mums, as women, that’s what we have to sacrifice, unfortunately. ‘The majority of women I work with have gone through this; it’s happening.’
Ironically, Kirsty believes she was luckier than some because, ‘I was fortunate to have a union, and there’s ACAS, but so many people don’t know they exist.’
James Froud, Head of Employment, McCarthy Denning, has worked on several flexible working disputes and says: ‘Barring two exceptions, they all involved mothers who were looking to return (or had already done so) from maternity leave on more flexible hours.
‘It remains too easy for an employer to refuse a flexible working request, particularly at the inception of a job.’
Cheney Hamilton, CEO of Find Your Flex, advocates for flexible working for all and has seen many cases where requesting flexible working has created a ‘penalty’ against the employee.
‘We have men taking shared leave or requesting flexibility around ‘pick-up’ times, for the first time in most businesses’ history,’ she says. ‘Upon their return or after the request, they’re being passed over for promotion – or are exiled from development or growth strategies as they can’t be trusted to “be there”. A feeling and bias that many mothers know well.’
When Charlotte* verbally accepted a full-time remote job for a technology organisation, she received an offer in writing. However, when the mum-of-two asked if there was any possibility of flexible working because her husband was returning to the office following lockdown, which resulted in one day of childcare issues, the offer was withdrawn.
‘I accepted the job and told them how excited I was,’ she remembers. ‘But then, almost a week after I asked about the possibility of four days, they emailed to retract the offer. They didn’t phone me to discuss it or give me the option of the original five-day position. It seems the moment I mentioned childcare, they pulled the offer.
‘There was one day a week I was struggling to organise, but I would have found a way. All I did was ask a question about flexible working. Sadly, I didn’t fit their nine to five model, so I was out before I was in.’
Charlotte adds that this u-turn created a deeper negative impact for her, on top of having to search for a new job. ‘I arranged and paid for childcare, which was wasted money. It was humiliating as I told my family and friends about the job, and then I had to tell them it wasn’t happening. I ran over in my head what I’d done wrong and how I could have done things differently. It has impacted my confidence, and I’ve lost hope of finding a flexible employer now who will be okay with me having children.’
According to Claire McCartney, organisations need to start thinking creatively around solutions rather than seeing children as an immovable hurdle.
‘Can the organisation and the individual think of another solution around flexible working that might work as there will be business reasons why not all requests can be granted?’ she asks. ‘What else could be offered to make a difference?’
Transparency, it seems, is critical in discussing requests and solutions.
‘Participating in open discussions about flexible working arrangements presents an excellent opportunity for employers to engage with their employees to build a happier and more loyal workforce,’ explains James.
Meanwhile, Claire highlights that this isn’t just an issue for parents – she believes organisations must do more to support all employees asking for flexible working.
‘There’s much more progress that could be made, and the change in legislation will help to achieve that, but if you don’t have a supportive culture around flexible working, you could have the legislation in place, and nothing really will change.’
On the new right to ask for flexible working from day one, Claire adds, ‘It is not a panacea on its own, but it will get employees and organisations talking more about it.’
Isobel Walster, 24, worked in marketing for two years before her company proved their commitment to flexible working was only applicable during the pandemic.
‘As soon as things started opening up again after lockdown, they stopped flexi working because they couldn’t monitor us,’ she explains.
‘I didn’t understand it as I always sent a weekly update, communicated via Zoom calls, and didn’t deal with any clients face to face.’
Isobel had planned to move in with her partner in six months’ time, so decided to give her employer plenty of notice by asking if she could work flexibly later in the year – or face a 150-mile daily commute.
The request, which she made over the phone, was immediately rejected in the same conversation – with her employer telling Isobel they wanted to ‘see‘ productivity in the office.
A week later, she resigned and took a job with a competitor who offered full-time remote work.
Dr Alex Young is founder and CEO of AI firm Virti and is one employer who does offer remote and flexible working as default for all employees from day one. He believes that although it will take time for more companies to do the same, the shift is moving in the right direction.
‘Flexible working isn’t something that can just be parachuted into a company,’ he explains. ‘It needs to be supported with robust HR policy, excellent workflow systems and the best communication and training technologies to ensure everyone stays motivated and connected.
‘However,’ he adds, ‘Once all employers wake up to the fact that today’s generation of workers are no longer prepared to stay with companies that refuse to modernise their HR policies, I think we’ll start to see the final stragglers jump onto the flexible working train.’
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