Ursula Tavender founded Taking Care of Business to support companies to embrace flexible ways of working. The aim is to achieve a true shift in culture, meaning more people, regardless of their circumstances or working pattern, can stay and progress at work. Ursula also participates in several influential government groups. She writes, speaks, comments and campaigns for business change on supporting parents at work, flexible working and the gender pay gap. I started our conversation by asking Ursula to tell me about her Mumbelievable blog which is where Taking Care of Business started.
‘I had a bit of an identity crisis after the birth of my first child. It was difficult to combine the working life that I loved with being meaningfully present for my family. It felt like I was all at sea. My professional background was in communication and I’ve always written as a bit of an outlet. I started the Mumbelievable blog, and thousands of people felt the same which was a revelation. Here was this massive issue: people trying to combine personal circumstances with their work.
I had the same conversation hundreds of times with people about the barriers they faced trying to combine family life, work-life and developing a career. Working with individuals was a privilege but I realised that wasn’t going to drive system change. I was fiercely driven by the injustice of the fact that so many people were effectively excluded from work. I switched the focus of my business to a consultancy that would help organisations change and Taking Care of Business was born in 2017. I help businesses become more inclusive, by using flexible working as a mechanism to achieve equality across all demographics, not just parents. It’s about making sure that work works for everyone.’
Since the coronavirus, lots of people are working from home. I asked Ursula what changes she is seeing around flexible working as a result?
‘People see the possibilities now because we’ve had this forced, en masse, remote working experiment. It has proved the case to a lot of sceptics. We can work collaboratively from home albeit differently; businesses can continue to perform, even thrive in challenging circumstances. Mindsets are beginning to shift and business is becoming braver about testing different ways of working and offering people different options.
Alongside that is the humanisation of work. This concept is at the heart of flexible working. For people that don’t fit the conventional mould or can’t commit to a nine to five, Monday to Friday in a fixed location, offering different ways of working is important. Remote working is a flexible working option, so is flexing hours. There are so many different possibilities for what flexible working means. It means something different to everybody. The way we’ve all started to talk about that in a very human way, from the leadership level right to the front line is a positive thing. We are all people trying to make our lives work in the best way that we can.’
We’ve heard much talk about the new normal, as we move into a post-coronavirus phase. If it takes about 30 days of different behaviour to change a habit and we were in lockdown for more than 30 days it’s likely that’s enough to change the way that we work forever. I shared with Ursula that some of my clients say they’ve now realised that there’s been a two or three-tiered approach to flexible working previously. For example, there were individuals in the organisation that could be trusted to work flexibly and got the freedom to do so. There were others they felt couldn’t be trusted and others where they thought the role couldn’t be done flexibly or remotely. Those perceptions have been blown out of the water now, so I asked Ursula what opportunities are there for businesses to provide more flexible ways of working?
‘It opens up infinite possibilities for the talent pool if businesses can make some roles more flexible across different geographical locations. It won’t be possible for all roles, but it creates more opportunities to access work for people that weren’t able to commit to a Monday to Friday, nine to five working person in a fixed location. This creates opportunities to close gender and disability gaps.
From the societal and wellbeing perspectives, increasing choices about how, when and where we work is a positive move. As a global community, it’s been a traumatic time. Flexible working has the potential to really not only transform but also contribute very positively to people’s lives in respect of how they juggle their time, manage their energy and mental periods of peak strength and the less productive times of the day.
The business benefits from the opportunity to get the most from people because they’ll be working when and where it works best for them. This leads to better business success and productivity which impacts the bottom line. So there’s a domino effect of the opportunities and the benefits. We have this opportunity to use flexible working to make employment opportunities and our working culture in this country more inclusive. It’s just the right thing to do.
COVID forced us to use the technology available and we’ve found people can deliver in their roles. I think the culture of trust is one of the fundamentals and I’ll come back to that in a little while because it’s a very important point.’
I agreed that there is an appetite for flexible working from the employer and employees, but there are still some challenges that businesses face in trying to implement it. I asked Ursula about some of the challenges she sees in organisations when they’re trying to implement more flexible ways of working?
‘Trust is the main one. Neurologically, it’s impossible to trust somebody instantly. We build trust as a result of positive social interactions that stimulate the release of the hormone, oxytocin, which reduces our fear of other human beings. It’s a chemical process. When we talk about building a culture of trust we can recruit people into that culture, but there is also this process of building trust in manager-employee relationships.
Another challenge is resistant mindsets around what can and can’t be done. Not every job can be done remotely and that can become a barrier in other parts of the business. It’s difficult to achieve equity in a business when you can’t offer the same options to everyone. I think we need to be brave as organisations and think differently about what equity is because flexible working means something different to every person. I talk about flexible working being possible in every single role there is. People say, “What? That’s not possible.” I say the options for flexible working will look different for every person because they have different expectations of what works for them. Some people won’t want to change anything. That’s fine. But if they know that they’ve got the option to work flexibly, they can keep that in mind, and combine their life successfully with their work when the time is right for them.
Perceptions and assumptions present challenges too. Consider overworking and agile working guilt. We hear about people leaving early, feeling like they need to skulk off even though they might have started work early in the morning. Everybody works differently, but when you have that undercurrent of, “We need to keep this a secret because this isn’t the conventional way of working,” it falls down. If you replace that with an open culture of communication where teams and the business accept that everybody’s working to deliver their outcomes and their goals it’s healthier. Focus on that, rather than how many hours your bum has been sitting at your desk, tapping on a keyboard in an office.’
I talked to Ursula about working for an organisation that did a really good job of implementing agile working based on simple principles. People were measured on output, not on time spent at the desk. At another organisation, I was talking to an expectant father. He said he would go to the antenatal appointments with his partner and colleagues would roll their eyes and say, “Oh, so you’re taking another half-day off.” In fact, he was leaving the office at 4 o’clock. Those microaggressions had a real impact on him making him feel guilty. He was still getting the job done because he would go to the appointment with his partner, and then he would log on in the evening to finish working.
Ursula says, ‘In some of the workshops that I run with clients, it’s important to allow those perceptions and differences to come out into the open. I remember a workshop back when we could do things in person, and this woman said, “Do you know what, I’ve just had a real lightbulb moment, that I say that. When somebody leaves, I say, “Oh, part-timer.” I don’t mean it in a bad way, but I see how it could come across in that way.” And she committed to not making those comments anymore. It’s all part of the process of moving towards this more agile culture. For many companies, they’re much further ahead down the line in terms of the culture, mindsets and behavioural shift that is needed to support that infrastructure change in terms of the way we work.’
I asked Ursula what would be her reply to organisations that say some jobs cannot be done flexibly. An example might be shift work in a distribution centre. People have to be there because they’re shifting items and dispatching them in trucks.
‘No they can’t be done remotely, but that’s not to say they can’t be done flexibly. As I said earlier, flexibility means something different to everybody. So for one person it might be that being able to come in 15 or 20 minutes later, or earlier, and flex their hours by a very tiny amount of time. This might mean they can walk their dog in the morning, or read when they wake up or go home to watch a certain programme or do a gym class. It’s these small things that have a massive impact on somebody’s sense of well-being. Every job can be done flexibly. It could be a shift-swapping option for warehouse environments. A menu of flexible working options can be available to employees. It would be different across teams because each one has a different function.
We need to let go of this notion that we have to offer the same options for everybody for it to work. There is an element of choice, isn’t there? If you want to work remotely, and that’s important to you, then jobs in a distribution centre probably aren’t the best choice for you, but there can still be flexible working options available for people that want to work there. It’s about being creative and asking your people. They’ll come up with the best options because they know what will work. Generally, people want to do a good job and if you help them to do that, then they’ll be on board.’
Ursula has developed a framework to support business to do this. Aptly, it’s called the FLEXIBLE Model. I asked her to share three things that organisations can do to start to put flexible working in place.
‘I shoehorned eight elements into the acronym FLEXIBLE that have to be there for cultural and behavioural change to happen. If I have to pick three out of eight from the FLEXIBLE model, I’d start with a culture of trust and open communication so people can make mistakes, learn and develop a growth mindset culture. Secondly, I think it’s vital to have support for managers and teams to make it work. I have recommendations about that. If you create a microculture within teams for flexible working, that’s the way it ignites. If you take a company-wide approach, some teams say, “Well, that wouldn’t work for us.” They distance themselves and disengage. But if you empower and give teams autonomy to make the decisions about the options for flexible working they’re more engaged from the outset and can shape their microculture. Give managers the tools to be able to confidently move ahead with guiding principles that will help them to make decisions about what is and what isn’t okay in consultation with the team. That’s vital and works brilliantly.
Finally, I think people need to see what’s possible. For me, role modelling and leadership setting the tone is key. “This is the way we work, and it’s okay.” Seeing leaders working flexibly and being vocal about it, employees apply that to themselves and think, “Well, you know, if it’s alright for them, it’s alright for us.” What I’ve seen a lot of recently is internal social media channels being used brilliantly. The CEOs around the kitchen table with their family life going on in the background. They’re real and showing you what’s possible. They’re vocal about the fact that they’re knocking off early because they’ve given a lot to their work this week, and they’re taking some time back to themselves. Those are the top three, but it’s hard to choose.’
To conclude I asked Ursula, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you and the clients that you work with? In particular, around growth that we can get from flexible and agile working?’
‘Inclusive growth is about giving everybody a voice because it contributes to growth and success as an organisation. Together, we’re much stronger and we can achieve more. When you provide opportunities for people to contribute to inclusive growth and give them the platforms to be part of those decisions, I think that’s when things take off. It’s about making sure that everybody’s voice matters.’
To get in touch with Ursula and learn more about her thought leadership look for Ursula Tavender on LinkedIn.