“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
The words of Kamala Harris, the first female vice president and the first vice president of colour, are a poignant reminder of the power of positive role models to shift and change the shape of culture. It is only right we collectively celebrate this colossal victory of acceptance over division and this beacon of female leadership.
Harris’ ascendency is the promise of hope we all desperately needed, and a light which is particularly vital for working women. Economically and emotionally the coronavirus crisis has had a devastating impact on so many; for working women, the picture is particularly bleak. Data from the [US] National Bureau of Economic Research is predicting a 5% widening of the gender pay gap over the course of the pandemic-induced recession with women more likely to be furloughed or made redundant.
While the latest McKinsey Women in the Workplace study reports senior-level women are 1.5 times more likely than male peers to consider downshifting their careers in 2020, with the statistics even higher for women of colour, as they juggle increased family care responsibilities with company leadership pressure. Working women are disproportionately carrying the emotional load of the coronavirus crisis.
Burn-out is leading to bail-out
For the women of Wacl, these are incredibly worrying statistics and ones we think every leader should be concerned about. We’re facing what could be the thin end of a much bigger corporate burn-out wedge that affects both women and men resulting in a huge talent drain across our industry.
But we think there’s a silver lining to this cloud and it comes in the form of flexible working.
The speed we went into our first lock-down showed us how quickly we could all adapt to a life without the need for being constantly in the office. How a life that included our colleagues’ children and pets, hobbies and home-décor didn’t detract from "work", but instead added to it. We learned that being adaptable and flexible with the hours people wanted to work didn’t result in less productivity and often delivered better quality outputs.
This is something many of our leaders at Wacl have known for years; that flexible working in all its forms really does work.
When it comes to women, through first-hand experience combined with research endorsed by the Chartered Management Institute, we know that companies that are "flexible first" bring more women into the workforce. Flexible working policies create conditions that increase their company longevity, with more women applying for senior board-level roles. Having leadership positions which are focused on output, not presenteeism, has the biggest impact on the gender pay gap in the boardroom.
But equally importantly the data shows the benefits offered by flexible working aren’t just restricted to women. Studies have proven the far-reaching effects for both men and women, business and society; unlocking productivity and performance, unleashing people’s potential at the same time as improving their loyalty. In the face of the current crisis leaders need to shift their corporate culture and put people first. Trust their team to work how and where they want, giving them time to think and breathe with tools to enhance and help them to collaborate, focusing on their output rather than hours clocked in at the office or on Zoom. Replacing office presenteeism with digital presenteeism is not embracing the opportunity of flexible working.
So Wacl is asking one thing of our industry this year – become flexible first employers. And Wacl is not just here to point out the problem, we’re here to help.
We’ve developed a #FlexibleFirst Toolkit that is free for everyone to guide you through every step of the journey you need to take to promote all your positions as flexible. We’ve backed this up with case studies from Wacl executives leading the way in their organisations and free webinars providing practical tips. You can see a taster below from our Wacl flexible first frontrunners.
Today we launch our #FlexibleFirst checklist and Standard/Leadership Mark, in association with Campaign and backed by ISBA and the CMI. The checklist takes you through all the initiatives you need to undertake to become a genuine flexible first employer. Whether you are on the road to #FlexibleFirst working or leading the way, you will receive a Standard or Leadership Mark respectively to share with future employees and recruitment consultants and display on your email signatures and website.
For while we celebrate the historic victory of Harris; we must double-down on levelling the playing field for the women in our industry. If we commit to starting the hard work today we can show our people how important their health and wellbeing is to our future. Let’s make our industry a beacon that burns brightly across all sectors. Let’s become flexible first employers.
Jackie Stevenson is the 20/21 president of Wacl and the founder and chief executive at The Brooklyn Brothers.
Learning from the FlexibleFirst frontrunners by Nicola Kemp
Long prior to lockdown these marketing leaders were successfully driving the flexible working agenda forward, with innovative and inclusive approaches to attracting and retaining the best talent. Here they share their learnings:
Head of marketing, Vodafone Business
Top smart digital creative talent will turn down roles at companies that don’t offer flexible working. This is the reality of the importance of flexible working according to Vodafone’s Katrina Lowes. “There is a business benefit as much as there is a benefit to the employee,” she explains.
With 92,000 employees across the globe, 60% of whom are millennials, Vodafone takes a global approach to changing behaviour from the top down. To this end, the company has a reverse mentoring programme for leaders, who are matched with a "digital ninjas" who are early in career.
Having spent two decades embracing flexible working as a result of being in global positions, Lowes believes that flexible working is about so much more than a binary choice between home or office. She explains: “You really need to think about meeting the needs of different people in the workplace; it's about attracting and retaining talent and giving them the ability to work in ways that make them most productive.”
From Vodafone’s own research, employees would like to spend 60% of their time working flexibly or remotely and 40% of their time in an office. Clear benefits include increased productivity and employee satisfaction; as well as operational benefits such as a reduction in operating space and a reduction of Carbon Dioxide emissions from reduced travel.
Vodafone has extensive policies to support different ways of working, these span everything from 16 weeks fully paid parental leave across the globe to "Reconnect", which supports employees as they return to the workplace after a career break. The group also has a global domestic violence policy which includes training for line-managers and toolkits for customers.
Lowes is a passionate advocate of the importance of trust in business. She explains: “It is about trusting that your employees come to work to do the best job they can do. But where that work is, is entirely down to them.” She believes this trust needs to extend to agencies and vendors. “One of the things I encourage is that clients and agencies really talk about how they manage their teams collectively to not have one rule for one and one for another.”
Chairman, Fold7; group chief executive, Miroma Agencies
“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reset and build a truly flexible future of work that works for everyone,” Marc Nohr is passionate about not wasting the opportunity for a positive reset that the current pandemic presents. Nohr has been advocating for flexible working long before the current crisis. A commitment reflected by his recognition this year on Timewise’s Power 50, an annual list that honours men and women who have achieved career success while working part-time or flexibly.
Nohr himself is contracted four days a week using his Fridays to mentor young entrepreneurs, work with the IPA and chair the UK’s Jewish arts and cultural centre JW3. He believes that flexible working is a "win-win", as he explains: “Employers can save real estate costs, retain talent and make better work. Employees get the freedom to work as they truly want to.”
At Miroma Group, Nohr explains that conversations around this topic are dynamic rather than “one size fits all”. Each of the group’s agencies is “discovering what works best for them and the idea of building a future of work that works for everyone is an iterative process” but the group is focused on "measuring outcomes not inputs,” he adds.
Agency leaders have a high degree of autonomy and the group is looking at different types of flexibility beyond simply going part time; from job shares, shift or part-day work to exploring remote working not just as a binary choice of home or office; as well as exploring remote working from a different region or city.
Nohr points to the fact that far from wanting indefinite remote working, a number of employees across its agencies feel the opposite; craving human contact and collaboration. In the midst of the pandemic, he believes it is vital to be mindful of the mid- and long-term psychological implications for employees.
He explains: “We want to ensure that the flexibility we currently provide and the ways of working we will adopt going forward, will create environments that enable our people more productive and more open to fresh, creative possibilities.”
Chief executive and founder, Mumsnet and Gransnet
“A results-only work environment is the way to go, where we look at outputs not hours.” With laser-sharp insight, Justine Roberts points to the fact that companies need to shift their focus when it comes to flexible working. “It’s really odd that firms ‘own’ your hours, why not own your output? It's a much more progressive approach," she explains.
It's progressiveness which is not always embraced by established businesses; reflected by the fact it is sometimes easier to launch an entirely new business from the ground-up than to get an existing corporate business to flex. For Roberts, exiting her career in the city to launch Mumsnet, was just as much about being able to put family first in the workplace, as it was capitalising on the internet boom.
“For me, the way to achieve work-life balance was best done by launching my own business,” she explains. When she launched Mumsnet the company not only embraced flexible working but also recognised explicitly that family comes first.
According to Roberts, this approach has enabled the brand “to access a pool of talent that would not have been available to [it] if it wasn’t for flexible working.” Pointing to the fact that many jobs are not advertised as flexible from the start, she warned that businesses are at risk of cutting out huge swathes of talent that count themselves out before even applying.
At Mumsnet, where staff have dealt with everything from last-minute web chats with prime ministers to hacking threats, the flexibility works both ways. Teams give their time willingly because the company has always been flexible in return.
Roberts believes that the current crisis provides a moment both for flexibility to come into its own in the workplace, but also to ignite new conversations about the disproportionate mental and domestic load women are still carrying in the home.
She points to the opportunity for businesses to shift to results-based models rather than relentlessly focusing on hours. Noting research which shows that eight hours in the office leads to two hours and 43 minutes of actual work, Roberts urges companies not to fixate on the perceived shortcomings of flexible working.
“Being fully remote is tough on people, but there are not eight hours of work going on in an office either. Ultimately, if people are happy they will be more productive.”
Global executive vice-president, marketing, and chief diversity and inclusion officer, Unilever
“To attract the best talent in the industry you have to be flexible.” Explaining why flexible working is so intrinsic to Unilever’s business, Aline Santos points out the pivotal role of flexibility in both attracting and retaining the best talent.
“If you really want to have a diverse and inclusive company you have to adapt for people’s needs,” she explains. This is why Unilever has promoted and advocated for flexible working for over a decade; with a relentless focus on giving all employees more control over their lives. It is an approach which has led to employees feeling much happier and more engaged, which in turn drives productivity. “We know that when people feel more engaged with a company their performance increases by 25%,” she adds.
“Flexible working is a huge win-win situation. I struggle to understand why some people are still debating this,” explains Santos. According to Unilever’s research 93% of women who go on maternity leave want some kind of flexibility on their return; this ranges from job shares to compressed hours and working fewer days. The company has an open-minded and creative approach to flexible working on a global scale. “Any possibility is valid for a conversation,” Santos adds.
Santos’ own career is a testament to the power of flexible working, having spent most of her career working in Brazil; she took over a global role overseeing the detergents category which had never been run out of Brazil before. Today she retains flexibility in her schedule for a different reason; to pursue her studies of metaphysics.
Unilever has invested heavily in ensuring that managers understand the benefits of flexible working and get past any limiting misconceptions they might have. To this end, Santos underlines the importance of not just investing in technology, but also the need to invest in changing cultures. “We invested a lot in Unstereotyping the workplace and ensuring that people understand the benefits of flexible working,” she explains. More recently Unilever has created a dedicated training programme "Great Expectations" to support employees through maternity and paternity leave.