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Flexing for Success with Flexpo

As the owner of Venture Business and the brains behind Flexpo, the digital flexible working events now taking place on 16th September for the Business Digital Summit and 4th November for Flexpo Digital, it’s clear that Maddy Cole is passionate about flexible working. 2to3days caught up with our fellow flex champion.

After a six year career in London working in media sales I had my first baby at 25. Despite being head over heels in love with my newborn, I worried that the longer away from work the more career ground I would lose. I was a sucker for the “you can do it all” hype around working women.  So when my baby was only five months,  I negotiated a three-day week working from home.

It was unheard of in my office at the time and I was lucky to have a great boss who paved the way for this to even be considered let alone approved.

When I look back now I realise that actually I had done myself a disservice, I had the same role as before and the same responsibilities, but being paid for three days and not five.   This hadn’t occurred to anyone at the time.

I thought I was really pioneering as the only flex worker but I soon became a bit of a victim of presenteeism, which can be a real challenge for remote workers. I felt like I constantly had to work harder than anyone else so people knew I was still ‘on it’.

I was still breastfeeding a bottle refusing baby, so couldn’t do a full day in London, and I became very conscious that I was always the person who had to leave meetings early.  Leaving loudly is a key message that we try to impart to normalise flex, but its hard to do at a more junior level and at the time there were no senior leaders and certainly no male leaders leaving loudly, so I felt very nervous of doing so.  It felt as though my team-mates were all waiting so see when I was going to come back “properly,” but I knew that wasn’t an option for me, I couldn’t bear to leave my daughter for any longer than three days, so I left and launched Venture Business.

Venturing into a new challenge

Venture Business- the business behind Flexpo, is an outsourced media sales business.  We have a team of highly skilled media sales people who sell our clients B2B media solutions.  The business has doubled in size every year since conception and we recruit highly skilled media sales people who want the flexibility that they lacked at one of the big corporates.   Companies love the fact that they can tap into talent whenever they need to in an industry that is very hard to recruit good people and where they lose good people after major life events like a new child coming into the house.

Soon after launching, word got round about how flexible we are as an employer and other people approached me to join my team. Most of our team members had flexible working requests turned down come and then came and found us.  We work flexibly for our clients, some of them are the same organisations who frequently turn these requests down due to lack of support for flex within their own organisations, even though most of them completely embrace how well it works having worked with us.

The idea for Flexpo had started to form in my head and I knew I was onto something when parents started to approach me at the school gate to asking my advice about how to negotiate a flex role and how to find one.  Skilled professionals, desperate to return to the workplace.

Flexpo – a new way of working.  

My idea for Flexpo was first sketched out in Milan airport waiting for a flight with a very tired colleague who politely listened to my vision and helped me explore the pitfalls and strengths. I wanted to solve the problem of the gender pay gap and enable a truly diverse workforce and recognised that this was only achievable through flexible working.  The vision developed as Flexpo; an exhibition to connect talent with the opportunity to work.  Flexpo is designed to facilitate the connection between forward thinking employers and skilled professionals who desperately want to return to work or change how they work in a way that works for them and the business.

We launched the first event at Sandown last October, I would like to add that this only got off the ground thanks to our very early adopters and fantastic pioneers of flex - Sir Robert McAlpine, FSCS and Anna Whitehouse aka MotherPukka.  We were completely flooded with job seekers and we doubled the anticipated amount of visitors. After successfully launching Flexpo live in 2019, we have moved our face-to-face recruitment events to a digital platform, to evolve with the rapidly changing workplace, and support our HR & Business leaders as well as our flex seeking employees. We now have Flexpo Digital for job seekers on 4th November and the new Flexpo Business Digital Summit on 16th September to help HR Directors and business leaders implement flexible working roles, cultures and policies.

Right now, there is so much talk about there being a skills shortage, but you’ve got highly skilled people sitting at home who can’t work even though they’d like to.

Bill Gates predicted several years ago that flexible working would become a necessity for companies and he was right.  With 75% of millennials choosing flex over pay, businesses need to change their culture, their ways and their methods, because flexible working isn’t a nice to have, it’s a must have. Especially now as we emerge into the uncertainty of a post-lockdown world.

Flexibility = inclusivity

When I first conceived Flexpo my thought process was ‘I am a mother, but I also want to be Madeleine Cole’. I had people like me in mind. However, as I have developed my understanding of the people who want to flex, I have evolved my objectives for Flexpo.

Of course flexible working is important for parents, but Flexpo champions all potential workers: those with mental health issues and disabilities that stop them working full-time or who need additional support; the golden generation who need to look after both elderly parents and their grandchildren; returners who have had a career break; those who are neurodiverse, in fact anyone who just wants a different work/life balance and struggles to find a flexible employer to support their career growth.

Flexibility isn’t about the hours you work or where you do them, it’s also about a different approach to interviews and other strategies that can enhance workplace inclusion.   We have partnered with Ambitious about Autism who are helping us shape our shows to be truly inclusive for people who are neurodiverse and looking for a role, and actually this starts way before the actual role, we need to adapt our recruitment processes to be truly inclusive- stop using algorithms dictated by machine learning that allow for bias, reveal interview questions in advance of interviews for people who need more predictability.  Being able to prepare your answers won’t make you any less good at a role- why do we always insist on the element of surprise? 

We need to educate companies that there isn’t a a one-size-fits-all approach to flexible working.   And flexible working doesn’t necessarily mean remote working. Different organisations will need different rules that will suit their cultures as will different departments within those businesses. And, to quote a great supporter of Flexpo (thank you David ) “we need progress not perfection”- just start somewhere!

Most importantly, the best successful implementations of a flexible working culture are the ones where you have members of the C-Suite working flexibly so that culture filters down.

Overcoming the next challenges

One of the biggest flexible working challenges I face (and I don’t think I am alone in this!) is switching off. I’m a work in progress!

We’ve implemented a team charter to help my team as they really struggle to switch off too. If they work Tuesday to Thursday and find them selves working on a Monday and Tuesday too that isn’t flexible working, it’s exploitation and it undermines the very essence of why I’m so passionate about the importance of flexible working.

Register here to attend Flexpo Digital on 4 November as a jobseeker

Register here to attend Flexpo Business Digital Summit for business leaders on 16 September

 Or contact Madeleine Cole or Ursula Tavender for more information.