How Flexible Work Culture Can Make Business More Social

(Editor's note: This post originally appeared on Forbes.com)

Ten years ago, I met a woman working in the kitchens of my son’s school. Prior to having children, she had been a high flying professional. This, she told me, was the only job she could find with the flexibility she needed to care for her family. After searching for months for something at her level of skill and ability, she felt she had no choice but to “back pedal” on her achievements, earning capacity and future ambitions.

I was struck by a stark paradox. Here was an incredibly skilled and talented candidate, living in London – one of the world’s best cities in which to build a career – on the doorstep of employers who were suffering key shortages of the kinds of skills she had in abundance. I couldn’t believe that a talent hungry business wouldn’t consider her as a candidate, simply because she needed a small degree of flexibility. There had to be a blockage or fault in the system: one that was failing UK business as badly as it was failing the people who needed the flexibility.

And lo and behold, I found that flaw in the design. After teaming up with a former colleague, Emma Stewart, to conduct interview after interview with employers, we soon realised that there was one key systemic problem: the old-world recruitment industry was not fit for modern work culture.

New vacancies rarely mention what flexible working options a candidate might have, rendering great opportunities effectively “invisible” to the very pool of talent they’re courting. In spite of the fact that 96 per cent of UK businesses offer some kind of flexible working options (according to the CBI/Harvey Nash survey data 2011), most jobs advertisements don’t mention flexible working possibilities at all. In fact, our analysis of the UK vacancy market proved that only 3% of all jobs offering £20,000 or more are advertised with any kind of flexible working options up front (for example, the ability to work from home some of the time, the potential for the role to be carried out on a part-time basis or to job share the role).. Modern day recruitment practice is not reflecting the demands of the new workplace, and this is where the “crack” in the system is occurring.

In a bid to break the status quo, Emma and I began forging connections between this key pool of talent and employers, launching Timewise in 2012 as the very first visible and accessible marketplace for quality flexible work. In one year alone we amassed 30,000 candidates looking for flexible working options for a broad range of reasons, across a broad range of jobs, and began attracting an impressive, diverse suite of employers. We now have 54,000 candidates and are working with approximately 3,000 businesses.

In the course of our market-making work, we realised we had amassed a unique body of knowledge around flexible working, both in terms of policy, recruitment methods and practice. But we also wanted to know more – to get under the skin of how a particular business comes to design and shape a role and pinpoint who the internal influencers are. Talking to employers regularly, we realised our needs mirrored one another. They too had things they wanted to learn about. And each was at a different stage along the journey. Some already recruited roles as “open to flexibility for the right candidate”; others wanted to test this out; all wanted up-to-the-date insights and knowledge.

In late 2013 we launched the Timewise Partners programme—a collaborative forum where employers share experiences and explore how best to ensure fluid, agile career progression for those who need to work differently. We did this as a way to unlock the business potential for flexible working, to both help our clients and improve our own knowledge. As social entrepreneurs, we realised we were uniquely positioned to do this. We could provide a space in which large corporations could share information, regardless of the divides usually caused by industry segmentations and competitor information.

We share market insights regularly, deliver workshops and collaborate to tackle the biggest barriers to moving a flexible working culture forward. Together, we tackle diversity issues head on, by talking about how flexibility is not just useful for retaining existing staff in their roles, but as an attraction tool, too – and that this is crucial for opening doors to “hidden,” important pools of talent. The ultimate goal is a business culture where working flexibly doesn’t hold people back from promotion, where a diverse pipeline of talent is maintained through to senior management, and where businesses can attract outstanding candidates by opening up to flexibility in recruitment.

Our partners now include corporations like Accenture , the Bank of England, Credit Suisse, Diageo , EY, J.P.Morgan, Mercer, Oxford Instruments, PwC, Simmons & Simmons, Thomson Reuters and Wragge & Co.  We are also starting to engage with the public sector market here in the UK, too.

Forward thinking employers are no doubt becoming more open to flexibility. They do so not as part of an employee concession but because there are very real business benefits for doing so: less office space to rent, reduced salary costs, a great attraction tool, and more happy and loyal employees.

Recruiters and HR managers are beginning to drive change in this area. Increasingly, we are hearing flexibility as being talked of less in terms of “policy,” and more in terms of it being part of the DNA of how a good business works. Our work with the Timewise Partners has helped to shape and articulate these difficult concepts and put metrics on how fast change is taking place. Together, we are starting a new, positive conversation about modern work — and building a better future for all.

 

Are you involved in cross-sector collaboration in Europe? Apply to Ashoka’s competition, Social & Business Co-Creation: Collaboration for Impact, which is open to social entrepreneurs, non-profits, companies, and public sector organizations. Entries can include early stage ideas or fully established projects, as long as they involve a minimum of two partners from different sectors. Multi-partner projects are encouraged to apply. Entries close on April 10 2014, 23:59 CET.

 This post is part 2 of a 10 part series on co-creation and intrapreneurship. It was written by Karen Mattison, MBE, Ashoka Fellow and founder of Timewise.