“Why Is It, As A Man, So Unusual To Want To Work Flexibly?”
This could be controversial.
At present, it is far more common for women to be offered part-time work, especially when coming back from maternity leave for example, but why is it different for men? This is a question I have mulled over and discussed on a number of occasions. The majority of responses appear to be: ‘well why do you not want a full time job?’ or ‘what would you do outside of working?’
Let me be clear. At this juncture, I want to use the words part-time and flexibly interchangeably. I know some of you may bulk at this or disagree, but let’s put that to one side for a moment.
Last year, I was lucky enough to work part-time and it was a total revelation.
It was a situation I had pondered but not experienced. During the year, I was told many times by friends, that I was living the dream. And yes, I was very lucky to do so. There were personal motivations too.
At the beginning of the year, my younger brother was diagnosed with bowel cancer. This kickstarted the desire to complete an IRONMAN triathlon, with a view to raise money for his cancer charity. Having the extra time, meant I could train during the day, rather than wake up at 5am to train for 2 hours before work. This was a real bonus, and one for which I’m grateful.
However, it did plant the seed of:
- “why is it, as a man, so unusual to work flexibly?”, and
- “how many men would love to work less than 5 days a week, if given the chance?”
In a recent survey by the BBC, it was noted that one of the keys to happiness is ‘having time’. I can wholeheartedly attest to this. An increasing number of people are giving up days at work, to spend time doing the things they love. I’m sure you can imagine what they are…spending time with grand kids, taking up a hobby, or just spend time doing things with loved ones.
The world of work is changing.
Generational change is a key driver of this; with a growing acceptance that a positive ‘work/life balance’ is just as important as the actual job being done. The gig economy workers and freelancers of the world, are now the poster workers for this movement.
I’ve written previously about embracing change and the challenge facing companies from a management and workforce perspective. Nothing could be more true at the present.
The real challenge, in my view, is changing mindsets. The traditional mindset by senior management is that staff should be seen, and work full time. This can be attributed to ‘people focused roles’ rather being in a task driven organisation. The switch to ‘task focused’ means an individual can have involvement across multiple departments, as well as creating a more streamlined environment. A by-product of this will be the opportunity to change business model and people strategy. Yes, this may not align with a particular job title, at present, but is no reason for it not to happen.
All you have to do is look at companies disrupting the workplace to see it in action. The Hoxby Collective, of which I am a member, are tackling traditional working stereo types head on. The art of delivering solutions rather than people has shifted the approach and mindsets.
Task sharing amongst teams is becoming more common, often leading to increased productivity and happiness. The introduction of two people sharing tasks is a great step forwards; add to that an increasing acceptance of working remotely (think ‘working from home’) and you have a truly disruptive model.
So revisiting the original question, why is it so uncommon for a young man to work part-time?
There are deep-rooted traditional stereotypes which dictate the way things are done, but is that still an acceptable answer? I personally don’t think so.
If it is acceptable for women to want to work part-time on coming back from maternity leave, why can’t men work part-time if they want to too?
One of the biggest challenges is finding this work. The moment ‘part-time’ or ‘flexible working’ is mentioned in a prospective job conversation, it is possible to note a discernible reluctance in the conversation. In addition, it appears that employers are slow to adopt these practices and as a result, are less open to advocating these roles. The rise of gig economy workers, accompanied by the change in mindset, is forcing companies to sit up and take note.
As a freelancer, I am more than happy to work hard and flat out when I need to. This is common when working on projects, regardless of whether you are an employee or a contractor. One difference is upon completion of the project, freelancers can take some down time, recuperate and move on to other work.
Conversely depending on pro-activity levels, an employee can be in the office, “sat on the bench”, waiting for more work. Throw in the possibility that some employees may not be working as productively as can be, and you end up with a very detrimental situation called ‘Presentism’ — being there, for being there’s sake. This, in my opinion, is the bain of “office life”.
It is the single biggest negative trait for companies in moving forwards. It breeds inefficiency and sets the wrong precedent.
When leading teams, I ask a lot from them.
We focus on delivering the highest possible standard of work within the timeline required. Once the project has been completed and the lessons learned shared, however, we’re on downtime.
I don’t want to see them in the office, just because. There will always admin or other work that needs to be done, but does it need to be completed whilst being sat next to me? Probably not. Therefore, if it makes my team member happy, he or she can do so from home. Or more accurately, ‘not in the office’.
Changing mindsets is hard.
I’ve spoken in the past regarding the challenges around mobile working, namely technology and mindset.
The first, technology, we can control; good VPNs, laptops that work (without constantly crashing!) and access to team documents through a good document sharing system. These are all easily possible but may need some money spent to make it happen.
The second, mindset, is the ethos of this article: the ability to try new things and challenge the norm. It requires companies to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’.
I love seeing businesses adopt new approaches and the successes or failures derived from them. Not all that is tried will work but if you don’t try, you won’t know. And not trying is a criminal in my eyes. Better to learn from your mistakes, just like playing a platform video game, than stay in the land of mediocrity and being scared of trying.
In essence, the key driver of mindset is ‘trust’. Trust that your team are doing what you need them to do.
But think about it…did you get a job or come to work to learn how to trust someone?
I’m betting the answer is no. We learn those skills at school, from our parents, from our friends. We don’t come to work saying “today I’m going to learn how to trust someone”.
I believe it’s quite the opposite.
If you are part of my team or I work for you, you have my trust until you erode it away. What that really means is when working ‘not in the office’, as long as you do what’s required, to the same standard as if you were sat next to me, then you have my backing and support until the cows come home.
However, if you take liberties and standards begin to fall, then we will have words and things will have to change. But suffice it to say, I’m not going to get off on the wrong foot, expecting you to fail from the beginning. I believe people are most productive and happy when they feel valued.
This in turn breeds loyalty. The old adage of “people don’t leave because of bad companies, they leave because of bad managers” is often very true.
So how can you inspire confidence and loyalty? Simple, build a community.
Communities work for each other.
They want the best for everyone, not just themselves. Seth Godin talks about this at length, and I think it is very true. But it’s painfully obvious many companies don’t. For my last two freelance contracts, I’ve been on the outside as far as company inclusivity and community goes.
The separation of contractors and employees needs to be known so the business can plan, but why make contractors feel second class? You may think I’m over exaggerating but it’s true.
In the last 3 years, I’ve missed out on Town Halls, Christmas Parties, Team Get Togethers, and Team Building away days, all because I was not an employee.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter or complaining.
I had flexibility in the days I worked, where I worked from and the rate I charged. But it did create a barrier. My boss was very aware of this and made sure it wasn’t the case in our team, but he was an exception rather than the rule.
By segregating the contractors from employees, companies are limiting themselves in creating a community. This will pose significant problems as workforce demographics shift and freelancer / gig economy workers become more of the workforce. This is a situation that companies need to consider and quickly!
So coming back to the original question again, I don’t think it’s possible to pin point one specific reason. Rather, it comes down to a combination of factors… approach, societal norms and mindset.
I can promise you that the benefits of part-time, or more accurately flexible working, are vast. The ability to ‘have time’ is huge. Add to this the ability to work to your schedule (just ask any new parent and I’m sure they would agree), and the positives just keep pilling up.
I’ve been told many times over the last few years, that I look really content. And it is true. It’s amazing how much better you feel when you are more in control of what you are doing. Yes, there will be ups and downs, tough situations and times when you question what’s going on. But you need to remember the reason why you want to work flexibly and stick with it. Would you rather go back to the rat race or be happy in what you do?
As many slogans will tell you, when you do what you love, it doesn’t feel like a job. So why shouldn’t you have the opportunity to do the work you love on your own terms?