The ‘7 Day Economy’ is a term I often hear being thrown about, like most people who have been advocating for flexibility for the longest time. Not because I think that working seven days is a good idea, but because acknowledging the reality of a seven day week is THE best place to start the conversation on flexibility.
No one can work a seven day week, or not for long anyway. So, if that is the real week, every one of us will need to work flexibly.
There are two major things limiting today’s conversation on flexibility – one is our definition of the ‘normal’ working week and the other is our definition of flexibility.
Let’s look at the working week.
For a whole host of reasons ‘work’ has been moving from a five day week to a seven day week for some time now. Globalisation and consumer demands have requested it; technology and globalisation have enabled it. So, it’s that week that we need to design flexibly.
Since the mid 1880s, “work” has been a five day week, eight hours a day, for one employer, performed in a specific workplace you physically visit to complete the work. Since then, everything changed except our definition of the working week.
If we were really honest, we’d accept that it’s a seven day week, and each ‘day’ is a whole lot longer than eight hours. A ‘normal’ office day is now way out nearer twelve hours. In retail, it’s even longer. And they are both before we look at the 24 hours, seven day week of call centres, health facilities, law enforcement and emergency services. And if you hang around the Head Office of any large company on a Saturday, you’ll see a whole lot of technically 9 to 5 workers, coming in in casual gear to ‘get a few things done’. If you check the IT log, you’ll see hoards of people logging in after dinner every night, and spending a good portion of the weekend ‘connected’.
Against that reality, it is hard to pick up a paper at the moment, without one more company announcing that they too are moving to ‘all roles flex’. Admittedly, that’s not a bad start. The unfortunate thing is that they’re almost always talking about ‘flexing the traditional five day week’ (‘the normal week’). That is a very limited conversation and avoids a whole bunch of reality.
A broader definition of Flexibility
The other big limiter in our conversation is our current definition of flexibility.
We now regularly have 80% (or more) of employees saying ‘we work flexibly’. Sounds fantastic until we dig a little deeper. What does working flexibly really mean to this 80%? Well, when we ask, we get really simple answers – “I work from home a day a week” or “I’m able to go the gym at lunchtime”. They’re both great examples for the individuals involved, but they don’t really redefine work. They don’t allow people to really redesign work to meet the other commitments in their life, and they don’t speak to the nature of the work that is done flexibly – is it work genuinely of equal value, or once you ‘flex’ the normal week, do you have a little less responsibility or a little less challenge, or a little less invested in your development.
What could/should flexibility be?
Flexibility changes all the rules around work.
Flexibility could be any of the following:
- Working remotely or away from the office/workplace
- Working for two (or more) employers – each for a portion of your working week, whatever that may be
- Working short days or a short week
- Working a compressed week in fewer days
- Sharing a job with someone with same or complementary skills
- Project-based role
- Set period roles
- Working for yourself, as a contractor to one or more employers, rather than as an employee
- Changing the way you are employed and remunerated to best meet your personal financial goals
At no point does ‘working flexibly’ dictate less responsibility, less ambition, less development, less leadership or less commitment.
Why flexibility matters – Economics
There is obviously an economic imperative for work, and workforces, to be designed differently. Organisations, as much as individuals, are stuck in old paradigms of work. They cannot grow their responsiveness to customers within the ‘normal’ week, which is probably where the extended ‘lets all stay connected all weekend’ came from.
Scarce resources (capabilities and skills, particularly STEM) cannot be shared for the best economic benefit if they are locked into an exclusive arrangement with one employer.
Organisations cannot enable greater workforce participation by groups that have previously been excluded – people with disability, people with caring responsibilities, people who are ageing, people who have other commitments. These groups have traditionally wanted to participate, but have often not found opportunities. The structure of work, taxation, and Superannuation could all change to allow flexible work design to be much more accessible and attractive.
Why flexibility matters – Socially
Making work more flexible, will be the first step in ensuring work remains ‘human’. Whilst we can do a seven day week for a while, it isn’t healthy physically, emotionally or socially for it to be locked in as a long-term life plan. There are too many studies proving time and again that time away from work will make you healthier and happier, and equally importantly, more efficient and more productive when you are at work.
Flexibility allows people back in the driver’s seat of their lives – balancing out everything that matters in a way that works in your unique context and aspirations – socially, financially, and for those who depend on you.
Why flexibility matters – For women
No discussion on flexibility would be complete without reference to our shared social ambition of gender balance. There is a reality in gender balance that has long been ignored that flexibility starts to solve. The facts are that 73% of Australian women will have children, and they’ll do that probably between the ages 28 and 38. It’s in that age category that organisations – public, private, not-for-profit – are currently locking down their future leaders. The talent processes of almost all major companies around the world, work on single career peaks, and they work on assessing potential in that specific age category.
If we can flex work design, but hold the value of the work being done, then we can redress this critical pipeline break for the 73% of women who have children. If we could also design flexible work to hold responsibility; if we could keep investment in development during flexible work periods; if we could promote on capability, not presenteeism; if we could assume high levels of commitment and ambition across people who work flexibly; then maybe we could change the way careers work for all those women and increasingly men, who take time to have a family, or take time to be a carer, or take time to balance their career with their life.
Ultimately, we do need to completely rethink talent management to take out all the discriminatory elements – gender, caring, parenting, age and single career peaks. For now, a good place to start would be getting flexibility right and making sure ‘flexible’ doesn’t mean ‘sidelined’.
Seven-day week and flexibility
The seven-day economy may well be the opportunity we’ve all been waiting for. It ‘normalises’ flexibility for ALL of us. If we can redesign work away from the seven-day working week, to a design that really does allow for our best contribution, we could finally move this flexibility debate to a much better place. A nice place to start is acknowledging the reality of the seven-day economy and be much clearer on how we want work to look in that context.
Rhonda has spent her career on the people stuff, working with some of the biggest and best companies all around the world, but she has always thought – “we could do this better. We could make work (and leadership) better for all of us – more inclusive, more real, and more ‘human’.
She fundamentally believes that inclusion, good leadership and treating each other as equals, is not only foundational for good people practices in organisations but equally of more equitable and prosperous economies and communities. In short, if we include as many people as possible in work, then we start to build the sort of community and society we all want to live in.
Rhonda is also co-founder of mwah, a Community, a Toolkit, a Think Tank, and a Boutique Consultancy, all aimed at Making Work Absolutely Human. A knowledge base and a community of all the real stuff you need to lead and work with people, today and in the future.