Our future leaders want to combine work and life

The next generation prize flexibility at work. As HR practitioners we must embrace and encourage varied working patterns, and offer solutions with more freedom.

As a Londoner, I had never imagined living anywhere else, so it came as a shock when my family said in 2012 that we should move to the country. Fortuitously, I had an offer from Sodexo to move to the European HR director position. With an office in Paris, and a remit of some 24 countries, I figured it didn’t matter terribly much where I lived, as long as I could easily access an international airport.

I advised my children of the compromise. We could move, but they had to understand I would be away from home three to four days each week. They quickly took the deal and six months later we had happily swapped north-west London for the Hampshire/Dorset border.

Recently, I asked my teenage daughter what she wants to do when she grows up. “Marry a rich man,” she said. I have always seen myself as a strong female role model. I have been back at work full-time since she was four months old, have talked to her about how women can and should have fulfilling careers, and advised her how important it is that she can look after herself financially.

I asked if she was serious. Her reply: “I don’t want to do what you do. You’re always running from one thing to the next, spend your life on trains and aeroplanes, and don’t enjoy enough time at home. ”

This has made me consider whether my generation of working mothers are really helping our daughters, or are we leading them to believe they have to choose between work and life? As a collective, Gen X women have grown up in workplaces where asking for flexibility has often been taken as a signal of putting our career aspirations on hold, and that we might no longer be serious about our progress. Our children have witnessed a somewhat all or nothing approach to climbing the ranks, and while this might have suited some of us, perhaps our children are going to reject this world because they have been first-hand observers of its disadvantages.

As HR practitioners we must work hard to influence a change in corporate culture, and embrace our new flexibility legislation in a meaningful way. Not just through policy, but by introducing role-modelling from the top, education for our managers, and ongoing communication of success stories. The up-and-coming generations – our future business leaders – need to be able to trust that they can combine work and life in a healthy and positive manner.

My enlightened Europe CEO manages me through my outputs and is not particularly interested in where I am doing my job on any given day. I balance spending time with my team in Paris, travelling to my customers around Europe, and doing the school run at least once a week. I encourage this sort of flexibility with my own team, and regularly talk up its benefits to other senior leaders. 

At Sodexo UK, we offer a range of flexible work arrangements. Part-time, term-time, and job shares for our frontline teams; compressed hours, homeworking, and flexi-working for our office-based teams.

Our generations network runs focus groups for under-30s asking them what they want from the workplace, and it is clear that they are seeking more freedom on how, where and when they work. My favourite example is a young manager in our London HQ who works a 4.5-day week. He DJs on a Thursday night so likes to stay in bed on a Friday morning. Now that is the kind of work arrangement my daughter would probably approve of.

Natalie Bickford is European HR director at Sodexo. She is ranked 18th on the HR Most Influential Practitioners list