“I just can’t see myself in an office, working a nine to five, not being in charge of my own time.”
I met Fliss when shooting a short video for The Pool. Smart, friendly and with an enviable millennial pink running through her white-blonde hair, she was living the millennial dream. She cycled from her east London flat to her east London office, overlooking London Fields. She is on her own time – as long as the work gets done. She fits hot-yoga lessons and a morning run into her week. She is only 25.
I was taken aback. I was surprised that a woman at the very beginning of her career has already rejected what many of us – including me – thought were the necessary evils of ambition: offices, regular hours, being on someone else's time. I watched my mother slavishly commute an hour and a half each way for a big job in which she was always on someone else’s time, working so hard, in the rigid confounds of someone else’s schedule. Watching and learning from her, after a decade in the jobs market I have always morphed and moulded into what an employer needed of me. This, I believed, was just how things are.
But I am wrong. This is how things were. When I thought about Fliss, I realised just how many of my friends, in a range of sectors, are working more flexibly: one friend lives in Birmingham and spends just two days in her London office; one friend job-shares part-time at a dance organisation and the University of London; another’s freelance career means one week never looks the same as the next. Friends have gone down to four days in order to study a master’s of law, retrain as a graphic designer and even just to visit London’s best lidos.
Flexibility has got to be perceived as much a part of working life as Pret coffees and cheap wine on Friday evenings
According to Karen Mattison, co-founder of Timewise, the pioneering flexible-working consultancy and recruitment agency, it is Generation Y that is leading this charge, but they are by no means the only ones. Their new report, published today, Flexible Working: A Talent Imperative, reveals that 63 per cent of full-time employees work flexibly in some way and a staggering 91 per cent of women are either working flexibly already or would like to.
Mattison argues that their data confidently shows that this isn’t a “mummy issue”; the demand for flexible working is across the board – age, gender, sector – and, more than that, we’re already finding a way to do it, even if unofficially. “Today’s workforce not only wants it, but they expect it,” says Mattison. “It’s no longer a ‘nice to have’. It’s time for businesses to get smarter and use flexibility to attract and keep the best people. And if businesses formally tracked their flexibility, I think they’d be surprised.”
For Mattison, the future of the workplace is already here – it’s businesses that need to catch up. And, for that to happen, she believes working cultures need to evolve, jobs need to be designed differently: “Businesses could create a flexible career path for people at different stages, rather than lose someone who wants to work part-time or develop another skill. You could have a more flexible model of employment – what about all these kids who want to be entrepreneurs? What about intrapreneurs? What about supporting them throughout out so it’s not all or nothing?”
Mattison has been pioneering flexible working for a long time and her vision seems even more critical in today’s climate. Not only are companies asking for her help on how to retain millennial talent who want greater flexibility, but Brexit is about to sweep away many people who are here and may not be able to stay, or push talent elsewhere – where the funding and opportunities are moving, too. Couple that with stagnant wages and impossible house prices, loyalty to a business seems increasingly unprofitable, and progression feels like it’s somewhere on the horizon, away from the current system that can feel unnecessary, arduous, even broken.
I put to Mattison that we need a new type of loyalty – something to fill the vacancy of financial security; a new culture and currency of exchange, one that reflects a new set of priorities in our landscape of mounting private debt, full-time renting and the growing trend towards self-employment. Maybe this is a case of me-me-me millennials thinking they can make a career out of their Instagram feeds, but I’m more inclined to think that this is something much bigger – our faith in institutions has been rocked time and time again over the last decade, from the bombastic recklessness of the banks to the chaos of Brexit. Maybe, just maybe, we want something on our terms for a change. Throw in this country’s problem with underemployment, and flexibility helps so many more than just pink-haired millennials.
'Don’t forget,' says Mattison, 'the law is on your side to request flexibility.' Tricky managers, Mattison believes, are becoming the exception to the rule, not the rule book
And where there is a will, there is a way – be it working from home, different shift patterns and flexible hours. Timewise has found that this is increasingly the norm – something that might be worth mentioning to unwilling bosses. “Don’t forget,” says Mattison, “the law is on your side to request flexibility.” Tricky managers, Mattison believes, are becoming the exception to the rule, not the rule book.
Recently, Mattison told The Guardian: “We’re still relying on the idea that normal is full-time, Monday to Friday, and part-time is what you get as a concession – because you asked in a clever way, or you’re so good that they wanted to keep you.” And that’s it – we’ve got to stop seeing flexible working as a favour or a bonus or tricking the system, even if we do admire our mothers, who faithfully worked within the system for 30 years, and feel guilty for not putting in the same sort of hours. Flexibility has got to be perceived as much a part of working life as Pret coffees and cheap wine on Friday evenings.
A few days after meeting Fliss, I receive an email. She’s letting her contacts know there’s a desk going in her co-working space. The future of work is here.
The story of today's flexible Britain will be told through the Timewise Power 50 awards – a new roll call of the UK's top flexible workers. Know someone championing flexible working? Nominations are open now.