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Sarah Williams-Gardener says “agile working” rather than flexible working is the future and now is the time for a change in the culture of working. Mandy Garner hears more.
Opportunity Now was set up in 1991 following a Hansard review which highlighted the lack of women in senior management. At the time it was called Opportunity 2000 and it focused on improving female recruitment and retention. It was backed by the then Government, but as 2000 approached it was clear that the problem of promoting women to senior positions was not going to be solved so quickly so the organisation was renamed Opportunity Now.
Williams Gardener says that Opportunity Now insists on the business case for recruiting and retaining women. “We understand that in today’s world 80% of buying decisions are made or heavily influence by women so if companies are not representing themselves to these markets they are losing an opportunity,” she says. Plus, 51% of graduates today are women. If companies are not attractive to these women, they are closing their doors on a large percentage of graduates.” Thirdly, she says, employers realise that having a diverse set of employees promotes innovation. In today’s economic climate, she adds, the fittest organisations will be the ones that survive.
She says that because there are now more women in the workplace compared with previous recessions, it is a “massive opportunity” for employers and employees to change the way they work, how jobs are defined, the work culture and to tackle the issue of equal pay for equal work.
In terms of working culture, Williams Gardener prefers not to use the term ‘flexible working’ as she thinks it conjures up images of part time work and “the mummy track”. Instead she refers to “agile working” which means that people can work in a different place and work different hours. “It’s much more positive and it’s something we need in today’s 24/7 world,” she says.
To make agile working possible the infrastructure is critical as is cultural acceptance. She says that the infrastructure to support agile working, in terms, for example, of the technology for working remotely, has been in place for some time. This is having a positive impact on cultural change. Allied to this, many companies are now looking at ways of implementing different forms of working to reduce their overheads and make themselves better equipped to handle the recession. Instead of making mass redundancies and losing the talented staff they need to keep ahead, companies are looking to scale back instead and promoting things like sabbaticals and reduced hours to tide them over the next year or so. In previous recessions, companies have cut back and then been forced to go through a large recruitment exercise when the economy has perked up. “People are looking at these issues in a very creative way using creative reduction,” says Williams Gardener, “and there will be many people who benefit from an improved work/life balance.”
She is determined to be positive about the future, saying that although we might not see the proverbial green shoots of recovery in the near future, “if we are at least positive there is the possibility that this positivity will reflect off people”.
On the issue of equal pay for equal work, she is very definite: people should be paid on performance, rather than presenteeism and there is no reason someone should accept lower pay for working in an agile way. “You should pay people for what they do and how they contribute and do it through clearly agreed performance criteria,” says Williams Gardener. She admits that it takes “a very talented manager” to manage people on performance and some jobs cannot be done without people being physically present. However, many can: for instance, in retail, people can work in an agile way by doing shifts which fit in with our 24/7 world.
Outside of work, she agrees that women are still a “long way from equality” in terms of who does the housework and childcare and that women, whether they work or not, still shoulder most of the work. But she counsels women not to think they can do it all. “No one is superwoman,” she states. “There is no such thing. Those women who look like they do do it all usually have an army of helpers. People are turning against this and realising that being superwoman is not possible.” Williams Gardener herself is a working mum and an agile worker so she knows what she is talking about. She has two children aged 6 and 7 and works “the equivalent of full time”. This includes working from home some of the time. “And I would never miss a sports day,” she adds emphatically.