Back in the depths of the third lockdown, I wrote in Third Sector about being a chief executive and a parent during the pandemic.
My experience of balancing relentless home-schooling, restless children and random school closures with the demands of leading a charity through Covid-19, had caused me to re-examine the burden of ‘juggling’ that I had been carrying for years.
I knew I was feeling exhausted, but had not expected the huge response I would get from others in our sector after the piece came out.
People spoke to me about feeling overwhelmed, stressed and experiencing huge stigma or disadvantage from requesting flexibility or part-time working.
They said that even when flexibility was available, practice was too often based on behind-the-scenes burnout and an unspoken expectation that people would work full time hours on part time pay – leaving them trapped in a cycle of unreasonable expectations that affected their health and wellbeing.
For many, concerns about balancing a demanding role with parenthood, or other reasons for needing flexibility, is simply seen as an insurmountable barrier to progression.
As one person said: “This is the reason I’ll probably never become a chief executive.”
The hundreds of messages and stories helped me realise how many of us have normalised unsustainable systems that only allow us to work and perform caring roles if we sacrifice our wellbeing.
They reminded me how important it is to speak openly and honestly about the toll that a lack of flexibility is taking, and personally model a different way of working in our organisations and use our influence and platforms to drive change.
At the same time I started hearing incredibly exciting examples of organisations experimenting with different ways of working, and changing their cultures to support flexibility and be more inclusive.
Others spoke about wanting to do more – but not knowing how to start.
Many people in our sector want to make urgent and permanent changes to how they work.
The need to work flexibly goes far beyond parenthood or caring responsibilities.
It feeds into supporting mental and physical health, creating inclusive practice for disabled people, where people can afford or want to live, personal development and much more.
We need a highly diverse pool of exceptional, motivated, passionate leaders more than ever. As charities consider how to build back post-pandemic, there is a critical opportunity to start a conversation about the flexible practices and cultures needed for truly inclusive workforces.
So I am thrilled that Acevo and the NCVO, with the support of the executive search firm Starfish Search, have joined forces to start a conversation about flexible working in the sector.
Our working group will come together in September and we want to hear from a diverse range of people who have sought or offered flexibility for a variety of reasons.
There is no right way to do this – different situations, circumstances and organisations will need different things.
Our hope is to bring together many perspectives about how we can do things differently. We want to share ideas, thinking and best practice, give charities confidence to try new approaches and create momentum for real and lasting change.
Like many others, I will be looking for a new role in the autumn. I have been lucky to work flexibly in several senior roles, alongside talented teams of fantastic part-time workers who bring enormous value and skill.
I know from experience that complex, challenging and exciting jobs can be done just as well by working flexibly and, crucially, by working less.
But even so, flexibility is one of my greatest anxieties when I think about my next job. Will the support be there so that I can be my best at work – at a time when there is so much vital and urgent work to be done – while also being there for my family and not sacrificing my own wellbeing?
So many of us would benefit from working flexibly. What a tragedy it would be for the sector to miss out on the expertise and talents of any of the people I have spoken to, simply because we do not have the courage to work differently.
The pandemic has made the burden of ‘juggling’ more visible and shown that new ways of working are possible when the will is there.
I hope that through this group we can play a part in lifting the hidden burden of anxiety, shame, over-compensating that too often comes with flexible working – and start to embed a more inclusive approach in our sector.
Becky Hewitt is chair of the Flexible Working Group and the former chief executive of Changing Faces