All Roles flex has long been heralded as the holy grail of gender equality. And with good reason. It increases female participation in the workforce and aids work life balance. Yet workplaces have struggled, until recently, to mainstream it effectively, with many managers acting as the flexibility gatekeepers for those (primarily working mothers) seeking to balance their paid work with their unpaid caring responsibilities.
However, over the last 12 months, our working worlds have literally catapulted into a social science experiment, mandating flexible work broadly and challenging the long-held biases against flexibility. At the core of the purpose of this regime has been government, workplace and societal prioritisation of care for our humanity.
COVID-19 has been a period of education. Long division and Year 3 geometry aside, many of us have learned a lot about ourselves, what we value in our lives, the way we worked before, and the way we’d like to work in the future. Isolation has demonstrated to even the most sceptical, the impressive outcomes that can be achieved without restrictive working hours or formal office spaces. And it forced everyone – executives, males and managers – to get on board with flex not just as enablers or gatekeepers, but this time, as beneficiaries of care practices.
But 12 months on, with an opportunity to take those silver linings and embed them, we’re also seeing new flex challenges emerge. Burnout from being always ‘on’, meeting overload, a burden on leaders to enable other people’s flexibility at the cost of their own. And, resistance to returning to the office especially from those who have assumed the lion’s share of unpaid care: working mothers. The post-2020 hangovers are real.
Interestingly, the other narrative we are still hearing at Grace Papers is that as workplaces reopen, many leaders are reverting back to a belief that flexibility isn’t for them. Rather, they see their roles as enabling flex for others.
But, it’s this same cohort that also often doesn’t ask the people who are most important to them how flex can support them. Or how they can better shape their jobs in ways that might fit their daily lives, and improve wellbeing, boundaries and foster psychological safety. And that’s often where we see new forms of flex coming into play.
So, as we celebrate Flexible Working Day this week, ponder this. How would you like to re-design your own role – to better care for others, care for the community, or care for yourself? Ask yourself, ‘What’s your why?’ Is it to care for a parent, family, or friend? Is it to contribute to your community – be it sport or arts or your local school or something else? Is it to better invest in your own health and wellness after enabling a year of flex in a remote environment for others? Is the answer simply self-care? What are the rituals of connection that are most important to you? That enable you to feel in balance?
In a way, the most important part of this conversation is not about flexible work policies, working from home, or retaining the best performing women. The capability for an empowered flex culture begins, after all, with you.