At the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) we are working on a range of issues on behalf of our network so that we can ensure Britain thrives now and post-Brexit. We believe that embracing a new way of working would be a great place to start. Flexibility should be a key ingredient for the future.
As co-executive director of policy and campaigns at the BCC I come at this from two angles. The first is that my organisation believes companies that don’t embrace a flexible mindset will fall behind others in terms of their productivity, profits and the quality of the people they recruit.
But secondly, I know that by working flexibly myself the organisations I have worked for have got so much more from me and from other staff members.
I have two daughters – now eight and five – and since they were born I have worked in senior roles full time, four days, in compressed hours and as a job share. My husband, a commercial lawyer, has also done a variety of different combinations of work. This is not just a gender issue nor a parental issue.
Flexibility is wanted and desired by talent at all life stages, and is specifically valued by Millennials. Top talent now demands it, and we all want top talent.
So I am well versed in all aspects of flexible working personally. But it is my partnership with Hannah Essex that often sparks interest. Hannah and I met many years ago on a joint project for different organisations and stayed in touch when she moved to Teach First. I covered Hannah’s first maternity and we have job shared or 'co-led' together since then.
Our role at Teach First was director of communications. We managed a large team of 30 staff, internal and external stakeholders and a 24/7 media, marketing and communications agenda. Although we were the first job share at Teach First, our partnership was considered a great success and left a legacy. Our team had the most flexibility of any in the organisation and we also had the highest length of service, as well as excellent people metrics performance. The correlation was not by chance.
Hannah and I were also flexible with each other, by covering during annual leave and going up to full time for life events – most notably the birth of Hannah’s second child and me having a hip replacement last year.
This September we started our new role as co-executive directors of the BCC, having been headhunted for, interviewed and appointed together. Our role is incredibly fast-paced, external at the highest levels, and involves quick judgement and long hours.
Many doubted the viability of our joint role but others immediately saw that two heads are better than one – including director general of the BCC Adam Marshall.
I work Monday and Tuesday, we both work Wednesday and Hannah finishes the week, with one of us being on call each weekend. The fresh legs, thinking and challenge we give each other and the organisation is absolutely critical. We both envisage our partnership, already four years old, will be for the long term. It is already the best professional development we have ever had.
We hear many stories of flexible working requests being refused and social media platforms are full of talented, skilled people (mainly women) who have been forced to seek roles for which they are massively overqualified or that pay less because they want and need flexibility.
Skills shortages for UK businesses are at a record high and recruitment is now stagnating. But while employment is still high productivity has not increased as it usually would – only 0.2% since the financial challenges of 2008. The UK isn’t getting the most out of its own people or their skills and we believe flexibility can help make the most of our nation’s talent.
There are issues to overcome; many of the perceptions about flexible working simply aren’t true. There is a growing evidence base that suggests flexible working is good for business because it boosts productivity and also reduces costs.
To work it needs a whole-organisational approach – from where and how jobs are advertised right through to how people secure promotions and are awarded pay rises.
There are also a number of pieces of work being done by the government and it is clear that gender pay gap reporting is focusing energy and some companies into considering this agenda.
Hannah and I hope that our appointment – together – to the executive of one of the leading business organisations in the country will play its part in challenging perceptions about which roles can be done flexibly.
Claire Walker is co-executive director of policy and campaigns at the British Chambers of Commerce and was keynote speaker at The HR Dept's annual conference