The workplace: A little flexibility goes a long way


Emily Writes explores the challenges of being a parent and holding down a job, and the difference a genuinely flexible employer can make.

My one year old woke last night, an hour after he’d been put to sleep. Then again an hour later. At 8pm. Again at 10.22pm. At almost midnight I was on my way to his room to calm his screaming. At 2.30am, I finally gave up and brought him to sleep in my bed. He slept at first on my chest, pinning me down. Then I managed to move him and he somehow flipped sideways. Tiny feet jammed in the small of my back. I checked the time – 4am. Then at 5am cries from my oldest child’s room. A fever. An hour spent with a damp cloth, 7.5ml of Pamol, a lullaby. Until the baby woke at 5.45am. A bottle for him which kept him calm until 6.20am-or-thereabouts. With the aid of The Wiggles keeping him company, I managed to close my eyes for just 22 minutes until my oldest woke up all ready for the day.

What happens next makes a hell of a difference.

Option A: a Kindy drop off and then my first meeting at 9am. I tried to focus through a throbbing headache contributing little – while feeling guilty for doing so. Trying to write down what I need to do because at 9am, after so little sleep the night before, I’m struggling.

Or, there’s Option B:

Kindy drop off at 9am. I rush home and jump into bed for a 45-minute power nap. Down a (very large) coffee, grab something to eat, brushing the crumbs off as I make it to my meeting at 10.30. I contribute, I understand what’s going on, I have ideas and plans and I feel like I can pull them off.

What a difference an hour and a half makes.

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A constant balancing act

To balance the two sides of your life – the parent and the worker – is like a tight-rope walk in the Wellington wind.

My precarious balancing act is possible because of the flexible working hours I have. It is because I’ve been able to return to work on reduced hours, and slowly, that I’ve been able to adjust to life as a working parent of two.

There was once only two camps – stay at home mothers and working mothers. Neither label works for many parents today, not least because all parents work and we don’t call dads working dads.

A third group is emerging – those of us who work from home and/or on reduced hours, while also being at home with our children; and those who share primary care-giving duties with our partners.

This group exists, I believe, because more employers in the public sector are treating their employees like adults. Adults who are in charge of raising humans and can be trusted – to work the hours required, to meet deadlines, and to exceed expectations in their roles – despite not being in the office 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Right now, it is a privilege to be able to do both. But it shouldn’t be. I hope one day it becomes our new normal.

Until then, we are excluding mothers (as the primary carers of most children) from the workforce – a loss of ideas, productivity, and of course a loss of talent.

Your employer’s attitude can make all the difference

I am grateful that my employer decided they wanted to keep me on when I had children. It feels like a choice they made – as I wouldn’t be able to cope with working normally on so little sleep. I returned to work four months after my first child was born and it was agonising.

My child had a health condition which meant I was often up all night at hospital, going to work for eight to ten hours then returning to hospital. I was hurtling toward a breakdown. I struggled to be the mother my son needed, the wife my husband needed, and the worker my employer needed.

I’ve had both no flexibility, and flexible working hours. One made me feel undervalued and my performance suffered, one made me feel I was a human being and I mattered and my performance showed this. I am sure you can guess which is which.

A lack of flexibility hurts everyone, not just parents

My experience isn’t unique. Friends who were (or are) returning to work have expressed the same:

“When flexible working hours were rejected by my workplace outright I immediately started looking for a new job. I didn’t want to work somewhere where they clearly didn’t care about me.”

“I had no choice but to go back to a job with no flexibility. I cried every day. It was terrible. I was a worse employee and a worse mother for it.”

“My child was so sick and my boss made me feel like I was selfish for wanting to be with her during surgery. I was never allowed flexible working hours when she was sick. I ended up quitting and I’ve told everyone who wants to work at [redacted] that they’re terrible employers.”

“I had flexible work from my first day back on the job and I’ve worked hard to prove I deserve it. I’m now much more productive than I ever was. I want to do a good job because I feel like my department values me.”

It seems a no-brainer to me. If you value employees, you will allow them flexible work hours. With my manager I regularly check in to make sure expectations are being met and she is happy with what I’m achieving. It’s a partnership and I know that I have only a few hours to provide real value for what they pay me – so I do that. I am motivated to succeed not just because of my manager who I feel great loyalty to, but also to those who will come after me.

Most of the time, it’s only an hour and a half. But it’s an hour and a half that provides so much to me. And that’s priceless.