The evolution of flexible working and the importance of work-life integration | Talent Matters Podcast

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Dave talks to Juliet Turnbull about the importance of integrating work and home life, the evolution of flexible working, how recruiters can challenge client mindsets, the need for confidence and relationship-building and the future of flexible working.

The One Where They Talk About…

In episode 218 of the Talent Matters podcast, Wave CEO Dave Jenkins is joined by flexible working trailblazer Juliet Turnbull, Founder and CEO of 2to3Days. Established 8 years ago in response to a need for a platform on which a community of highly capable women can find both support and advice on how to pursue and progress their careers on a flexible basis and be connected to recruiters and employers that offer that, 2to3days was revolutionary at the time. Post-pandemic, flexible working has exploded and, despite resistance from some, is not going anywhere. Juliet extols the societal and economic need for it as a way to both help women excel in their careers and ease the skills shortage that is wracking the UK.

This is a truly fascinating chat on an incredibly important, poker-hot topic and Juliet offers a host of insights and advice on how recruiters can be champions of flexible working and make great placements for their clients. It’s well worth a listen but we’ve also compiled the key takeaways so you have a handy reference.

The importance of integrating work and home life

2to3days was set up in the “dark ages of 2015 when flexible working was a dirty word”. Juliet was a self-proclaimed woman on a mission to solve a social and economic problem in the UK by connecting highly capable women to employers who want to employ them to work flexibly so they can integrate work into their lives. She is driven by the idea that women can and should have both. This isn’t the same as the nineties feminist mantra of ‘having it all’ as we recognise now that places unfair pressure on women and just leads to burnout. It’s also not about an outdated notion of ‘work-life balance’ as that is also exhausting. Instead, it’s about finding a different way to work so that work and life can be integrated. Life and work are fluid so it’s about integrating the two in order to achieve some sense of harmony.

The evolution of flexible working

The idea of flexible working is constantly evolving. It was rare and, other than part-time work, distrusted by many pre-COVID. During the pandemic we all went home and not many wanted to go back to the office. Fast-forward to the past 12-18 months and suddenly a growing number of companies who said they were going to remain remote-first or hybrid started to enforce a return to the office for at least part of the week. And yet the majority of employees and candidates want the option of flexibility in some form. There is currently a disconnect between what candidates want and what some employers are requiring. There seems to be a growing trend for a return to ‘we want you back at the office x number of days’ but whenever you ask employees and candidates they want more flexibility. A recent Slack survey revealed that 97% of employees want location flex and 80% want flex on when they work.

A period of transition

We need to all take a step back. We’re in a period of transition and there needs to be time for a mindset shift. Pre-pandemic, back in 2014, everyone thought Juliet was on the zeitgeist when she set up 2to3days. “It was me, John Wayne and a whole load of tumbleweed.” Then the pandemic hit and set about the biggest shift in how we work since World War II. We now find ourselves in a washing cycle, where you have early adopters of flexible working, those that are resisting it, and others who don’t know what’s best for their business and there’s a real tension.

The younger generations – Millennials and Gen Z – are coming through saying “I’ve seen my parents work rigidly whilst trying to juggle everything, they’re burnt out and I don’t want that.” Meanwhile, the baby boomers and older generations who are still leading the UK PLC and have been brought up in a different way of working are struggling to adapt. More women are coming out of university education than ever before and that is only set to rise. There’s a lot of change and that is hard for many – it’s human nature to automatically resist change. However, the pandemic – though brutal for women at the time – has done more to shift the status quo than anything else in recent history. Hybrid working was not even in our lexicon 3+ years ago.

A mindset shift and the need for trust

There’s a fear factor and a misunderstanding about what we mean by flexible working but ultimately it comes down to trust. We’re in an always-on digital culture but women (and men) also have children and elderly relatives to care for. We need companies to trust that they can get their work done, look after their family and not abuse the system. This has to fundamentally come from senior leadership. Some older male business leaders may have a stay-at-home wife so they don’t see the tension and the bias because of their privilege – they simply don’t see it as a problem. This will then run through their culture but, ultimately, people will start to leave. Part of the issue is that it’s easier to manage people when you are physically with them so the default response is often to do just that – get them back in the office. However, that doesn’t mean those people will be more productive or creative. What needs to happen is for managers to be trained to manage dispersed teams.

How recruiters can challenge client mindsets

A huge part of the resistance lies in how systemically the recruitment industry is set up – the first past the post system of best candidate wins and the reward of a percentage of full-time salary. When remuneration is based on that, therein lies the problem – the smaller the salary, the smaller the cut. In this case, recruiters could ask the client two key questions. Firstly, if I put the best person for the job in front of you and they want to work flexibly, would you consider them? If the answer’s yes, you’re 50% of the way there. The second question is, will you pay me the same fee? If yes, you suddenly you open up an entire database of candidates that you wouldn’t have looked at before. Juliet speaks to candidates every day who say recruiters won’t even put them on their books because they want to work flexibly, which means they don’t then have a database of such candidates when the opportunities arise.

Confidence and relationship-building

It’s about investing in a relationship with your client and it requires the client to trust you. Once you place someone that is fantastic in a role, they will come back to you and will be more willing to consider flexible options in the future. It may even be that you take a cut in the fee because of the way remuneration works but it’s a long-term investment. As a recruiter, you’ve got to have the confidence to push back and challenge clients. Larger organisations are under pressure to address gender equality and women are leaving because of lack of flex. And it’s not just women – men and younger generations want it too. It’s incumbent on clients and recruiters to facilitate flexible working options for the good of everyone in the process.

The future of flexible working

Where does the cycle end? How much more will we evolve flexible working? Like anything, it will find its flow and its balance. We are social beings and it’s important for our mental health that we sometimes work together, have the fizz and crackle of human interaction in an office or shared working space. But, importantly, we don’t need to be in the office all the time. We need our thinking time and our quiet time to get on with certain tasks.

When it comes to the ‘when’, people work better at different times. The rigid Monday to Friday, 9-5 is already changing and will eventually become a thing of the past. Time flexibility allows for school runs, hobbies, caring responsibilities, and different people’s time-based productivity levels. We all have the same amount of time, it’s about how we use it. And if people are performing, what does it matter when that work happens? Of course, there will be times when you need to come together or work longer hours. That will evolve and digital acceleration will help. We also have an ageing population and are working later in life than previous generations, but as you get older you have more responsibilities – if we can work flexibly to do that it will benefit the whole of society.

And the all-important foodie question…

“I am a complete foodie and cook from scratch every single day of my life so I would have people round at home. My favourite cook books are by Ottolenghi and Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana. My favourite dish is from Persiana and is really easy to make – pan-fried salmon cooked in harissa, fragrant rice and purple sprouting broccoli drizzled with tahini sauce.”

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