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Does the Government need to do more to promote flexible working? Sara Hill, founder of Capability Jane, thinks so. Could Government legislation on flexible working and maternity leave be painting women into a corner if it doesn’t at the same time do more to help employers to manage changes to working life?
Sara Hill, director of flexible work consultants Capability Jane, says this is definitely a danger. She states that fears that longer maternity leave and flexible working rights, mainly taken up by women, could combine to make women an unattractive employment prospect in an economic downturn so the new legislation may be a case of the Government giving with one hand and taking away with another. From an employer’s perspective, she says, particularly the bigger companies, managing the changes may take a massive transformation of an organisation’s working culture. “The Government needs to introduce more incentives for companies to do flexible working. It is very hard to reconfigure what you are doing, particularly in large companies,” she says, suggesting tax relief or grants for initiatives which enable managers to roll out flexibility across their company. On the plus side, she thinks the extension of flexible working will give parents more confidence to ask for flexibility and this could have a snowball effect with increasing numbers of parents who want to work flexibly pushing employers to make changes.
For SMEs, says Hill, flexible working is very appealing as it provides a solution to the problems of cost cutting, but she says the Government needs to help with managing maternity leave and covering the costs. “They don’t just have to pay maternity costs. They are losing a person for that time and have to replace them and train someone up,” she says.
Capability Jane was officially launched in 2007 – it focuses on finding flexible work for middle managers and senior executives and works with business to enable more senior roles to be flexible. The organisation also has a consultancy side, advising companies on how to redesign jobs and restructure their entire organisation to promote flexible working.
Hill says she had got everything ready in the six months preceding the launch and “begged, borrowed or stole” the things she needed to set up shop. Originally it was just her, but she now has a core team of four permanent staff and an immediate circle of “Capability Jane evangelists” who work as associates. The seed for the business came from Hill’s personal experience of returning to work after having children.
She was a management consultant at leading professional services organisation Ernst & Young and moved to the US to become marketing and business development director for a US-based company. “I came back to the UK heavily pregnant and looked to go back to work after having two children. So many of the opportunities were five days a week. I was so shocked by the recruitment process and the barriers. As soon as I mentioned flexible working or working from home recruiters lost interest,” she says.
She was out of work for 18 months, freelancing, until she found a job via her own network working for a management consultant three days a week. “It was perfect,” she says. “It would have done me, but the process I had been through and the rollercoaster journey to getting back my confidence meant I felt that I had to do something.” She negotiated a month off so she could work on a business plan for Capability Jane. “I was the main breadwinner at the time,” she says. “I gave myself six months and took a deep breath. I felt so passionate about it, I had to do it.”
Hill says the recession has had an impact on the business. Those who did not really get flexible working or the need for a diverse workforce were tending to sideline it now, but for those who do see how important it is, it is an agenda item at board level. She mentions too companies like KPMG which have used flexible working to retain talented staff. “This will ultimately shape their future and it will be quite interesting to monitor what the fall-out will be for thsoe who are just using flexible working as a cost-cutting measure and those who are using it to plan for the future,” she says, predicting that the latter will be forging ahead in 5-10 years’ time leaving the former stuck in “the dark ages”.
She would like to see flexibility adopted across the workforce. She thinks fathers will push more and more for flexibility as new generations of men who want to take more family responsibility step up to the plate. But she says there need to be more prominent male role models. She mentions one chief executive who has said he is not going to do a significant amount of global travel because he has a family. “It needs this kind of message from the top,” she says. Changes to paternity leave and an emphasis on sharing the first year of a child’s life between mother and father could also mean men become more involved in childcare and will be more reluctant to settle for the traditional work gender split of full time working dad and flexible working (lower paid, lower status) mother.
She says those who will have a harder time finding work during the recession will include mothers who have taken a significant amount of time out to look after children. Capability Jane is advising these to use the economic downturn to build up their skills and create “a marketable brand” and to research the kind of job they want and the type of company they want to work for.
For those who need to get back to work, the recession is having an impact. Hill says they are less adventurous in the jobs they go for and are more prepared to compromise on issues like flexibility. “They recognise that they are in a tough climate,” she says, although she says Capability Jane is not seeing a huge rise in the number of women being made redundant.
Hill herself has two children, five-year-old Charlie and four-year-old Summer. She says: “I said originally I wanted four children. I’ve got two, a dog and I’ve set up a business.” When asked if she works flexibly, she laughs the laugh of someone who is used to bending over backwards to fit everything into her schedule. Her business is all-consuming, she says, but she does try to keep Fridays free and not arrange any meetings for that day. The whole Capability Jane team work from home and Hill says this is perfect for her. “I am here miles more than if I was working three days in an office,” she says. She has had her share of childcare “issues”, for instance, one of her childminders got pregnant with twins very soon after starting to look after her children and had to give up work within a month.
Her children go to school locally and she paints a picture of dropping them off, armed with her Blackberry, hopping on a train and spending the entire journey sorting out who will be picking them up. It sounds like hard work, but it is clear that she is passionate about what she does. “It’s about trying to find the right formula and having a Plan B and in some cases a Plan C,” she says with a laugh.