Contortionism masquerading as flexibility
In ordinary circumstances, flexible working has become synonymous with working part time. In the current context, the associations relate more to the flexibility afforded by working from home.
The word flexibility is positively charged. It has connotations of personalisation, freedom and responsiveness. Indeed, I champion flexible working in the chapter I co-authored in the first WomenEd book: ‘Flexing Our Schools’. However, as with the health warning offered in the book regarding being duped into working full time on a part time salary, there’s also the potential for women to be short-changed by the premise of flexible, home-based working.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the opportunity that this context allows me to blend my personal and professional existence: extra baby cuddles throughout the day; staying in my slippers; meeting with colleagues from the comfort of my home. Nevertheless, just as the space clear of debris visible from my web cam gives a distorted snapshot of my dining room, the flexible working argument rarely considers the full view of what home working actually entails.
The Instagram version is really quite appealing: minimalist, chic home office spaces, time for exercise, learning a foreign language and an impromptu coffee break in the garden. The family-friendly edition promises intercepting work with some nutritious home baking, wholesome crafting or collective jaunts in the fresh air.
In reality, my day working from home resembles a smorgasbord of incomplete domestic chores, mummy duties and work tasks all bleeding into a guilt-ridden mush. And that’s with a husband taking his share.
Many us may thrive on the ability to simultaneously answer emails, pacify a small person, rustle up lunch while conducting a video call. However, multi-tasking is a myth. All we can hope for is to be as efficient as possible at task switching. And maintaining this kind of precarious juggling act is exhausting.
It has been interesting following the #SLTchat slow chat regarding flexible working over the last few days. Many of the #flexappeal tweets indicate that household responsibilities have become less equal during the lockdown period. A number of women share their personal experience of having to squeeze their home working into short snatches of the day or night and take the lion’s share of prime caring responsibilities to allow their partners unadulterated time to work from home.
The working from home isn’t itself the issue, it’s all of the other unpaid work that needs to happen too, unless you have a nanny and maid to see to it (I can imagine that this would feel rather odd if you weren’t leaving the house). Attempting to achieve 12+ hours of childcare, 8 hours of professional work and 2 or more hours of household tasks over the course of a day doesn’t add up, however Tetris-like your schedule.
So when we consider what we can learn about flexible working in the current climate, as well as recognising the absurdity of presenteeism, meetings that could have been emails and forcing people to drive to a different building in order to complete their work simultaneously in isolation, we also need to appreciate the inevitability of mission creep when working without defined boundaries.
Today I crossed a few big ticket items off of my work to-do list but I’m conscious that I was an absent mum, despite physically being in the same space. The satisfaction achieved from the former was negated by the latter. Tomorrow I might achieve a greater sense of equilibrium but the fulcrum is forever shifting as the balance I’m attempting to achieve isn’t really tenable.
Working from home means different things to different people, depending on their circumstances. At the moment, for many of us, the concept involves attempting to achieve two full time roles simultaneously. That’s not flexible working, it’s an impossible feat of contortionism.
I’m not a superhero, nor am I a magician. I think we all need to cut ourselves a bit of slack from our metaphorical capes and accept the impossibility of the current conditions we find ourselves in. We are attempting to work from home during a pandemic; this is not a true and realistic version of flexible working.