An article on flexible working written for Management magazine by Professor Kate Kearins.

Flexing but not breaking

I completed what I call the Saturday morning PhD. Working full-time teaching and researching, with only a few months off when each of our two daughters were born, Saturday was my time to really concentrate and power through.

Weekdays in the office were condensed to reduce the time the girls spent in childcare. The working week in the office was prioritised to doing a good job of my teaching, then dipping into my research when time allowed.

Come the weekend, my partner – and I am lucky I had that support – took the girls to the supermarket. He shopped while they were strapped in the shopping trolley, happily gnawing on free bread buns that were available back then.

Flexible working allowed me to progress my career as the children grew up. It’s an experience borne out in research by consulting firm Bain & Company. They found women believe working models that support men and women with family responsibilities to be the most important action to overcoming the barriers women face moving into leadership.

As such flexible work is a priority for New Zealand Global Women’s Champions for Change. Through our collective power as CEOs and chairs from across the public and private sector we have committed to raising the value of diversity and inclusiveness throughout the wider business community. By ensuring inclusive and flexible work cultures and practices our organisations will not only attract, maintain and unlock productivity and maximum potential from top talent, but provide an example and stimulus for other organisations to follow.

Here at AUT, as in many universities in the western world, academics have long had the advantage of working flexible hours. The ability to work from home is spelt out in a policy that gets an annual update. 

Staff appreciate the flexibility to go to school events, help out sick relatives, attend appointments, being home for tradespeople, and the like. They get to conduct research pretty much where they like and technology allows access to the resources needed to complete that work. And we appreciate that they will sometimes turn around a pile of marking over a weekend or work extra time to meet a looming research deadline.

As managers, setting clear targets is key. In our case that might be the kinds of teaching and supervision commitments we expect, ideally set well in advance, and the desired research outputs or publications. These can be standardised expectations but equally with the mix of work, they often need to be individualised, set in an annual goal setting meeting.

While flexibility allows women to keep on track with their careers, research has shown flexibility can come at a cost.

A study by Furman University’s Christin Munsch found men were not only more likely to have their requests for flexibility to fit in childcare approved, but they were also seen as more likeable and committed than the women in the study.

Another piece of research by Yvonne Lott and Heejung Chung found both men and women were likely to do more overtime if they had workplace flexibility, but for men this generally translated into more pay than their flexi-working female peers.

There were several possible reasons for this but one was the perception that women were using flexibility to work around family life, rather than getting the best out of the working week.

Author David Burkus suggests it paints a grim picture for gender equality and women seeking work-life balance, but says if flexible work arrangements aren’t delivering then the next step is make adjustments to remove the perceptions and biases.

One of the challenges I’ve found with people working from home or on the move, sometimes globally, is ensuring there is enough together time to generate a sense of common purpose and alignment, and to generate ideas and sharing, as well as to provide moral support for each other.

Yes scheduling meetings can be difficult, and occasionally we need to do that via skype for some staff. But beyond meetings, it’s important for colleagues to have time to be together socially to have more random and casual conversations that can spark creativity.

Kate Kearins and Professor of Management and PVC Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology and writes a regular article ''Managing for a Better World'' for Management magazine.