With the school holidays upon us, Rachel Livermore explores the upside of flexible working for parents.
A mother of two small children once asked me if parenting got easier as they got older. Clearly, she was hoping for me to say yes. But honestly, I had to answer no. Parenting doesn’t get easier or harder; what it gets is different.
Flexible working can help at all stages of your child’s life – and employers, there are benefits for you, too. Often, however, we think of flexible working as something for when the kids are babies. This is perhaps because childcare for preschoolers fits much better with common working practices than school terms do. Term time working is a form of flexible working certainly, but it doesn’t fit very well with the needs of employers running a year-round business. So, as our children start school we end up as jugglers, trying to balance work, school hours, after school care and school holiday care. We long for the day when they are old enough that they can be left alone for a while. And then we find that, actually…our teens still need us.
Sure, they don’t need us around all the time, in the way that small children do. They don’t need to be supervised, and they can take control of a lot of their own lives. But when they need you, they really need you – life and its problems are probably never quite as dramatic, nor as instant, as when we are teenagers. Teen years are also a time of big changes and decisions – what subjects to take, what interests to follow, what to do once they leave school? Friends made now can last a lifetime, relationships are intense, mistakes are easily made, and plans can be overturned by one poor result, one bad decision. The support of parents at the right time can make all the difference.
This is where both working from home and flexible working can help. Over the last few months many of us have learnt a lot about working from home, some good, some bad. It does, however, allow you to be at home when your children are out of school, as do many forms of flexible working. In turn, that means that you can be around when they need you – and you can leave them to their own lives when they don’t.
But the key question is how to make that work for you, for them, and for your employer or business. Here’s a few tips, based on things that have worked for me.
Try to maintain a positive relationship with your teen anyway. Easier said than done, but if there’s some activity you both enjoy, something you do together perhaps once a week you have common ground on which to meet them when there are issues. It may be something as simple as a TV series you watch together, a regular snack out after one of their other activities, or a sport you both enjoy. Whatever it is, it builds a foundation for communication, and shows that they are important to you and have priority in your life.
Make sure your older children understand the benefits that come from your work – an income to live on, for a start – and that this has consequences. Sometimes you will not be readily available, but at other times you are there for them, and will drop everything you can for them.
When working from home, have a signal that means they can (or can’t) interrupt. We use the open door; if it is open, you’re welcome to enter but if it’s closed only enter in an emergency (and define emergency – blood, injury, fire, flood, were our choices!). But be fair about when you use the signal.
If you can, plan your work flexibly so that you do things that require less concentration at the times you are most likely to be interrupted.
As an employer, business owner or manager, understand that flexible working isn’t just to meet the needs of parents with small children. People have all sorts of reasons for requesting flexible practices. Enabling this will benefit you in terms of happy (more productive) staff, and in both retention and recruitment. As an employer, there’s scope for being really innovative in how you balance the needs of the business with flexible working. That’s a whole different subject, but for example, if one of your managers needs six weeks off in the summer, it’s difficult to fill on a temporary basis – but a great opportunity for staff development as someone else steps up.
As an employee, remember that the business has needs too. There’s no point in having a flexible job if the business goes under – so you need to be flexible too. Show your employer that you are committed to the business and its wellbeing, demonstrate that you add value, and they will be more sensitive to your needs.
That said, it's important to set and maintain boundaries with your employer, particularly in terms of communications. Nobody likes getting a work email or text late in the evening for example, and it's a good idea to be clear on what does and does not work for you, by not feeling the need to be "always on" and reply right away - it sends the wrong message to your employer about your availability, and also to your family about your priorities. Flexible work should not mean you have no time for the more important things in life.