At the age of 23 I applied for full-time positions as a senior accountant with no intention of working five days a week. I had two pre-school children at the time and wanted to work three days a week maximum.
At the interview stage I raised the issue unashamedly; I wanted to be upfront about what would work for me and why I thought I would be good for the firm. Out of three job offers, I accepted the only one where I believed I could truly work flexibly, leaving the office for the nursery pick-up without having to sneak away from my desk.
This was a huge deal for me. I needed to work, but also wanted to spend time with my children while they were young. I didn’t want to miss out on school drop-offs and pick-ups, concerts, sports days, being a helper on school trips. But I also didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity of promotion or working on big projects with interesting clients.
Before the interviews, I prepared a plan of how I was going to make this work for me and the employer. I saw it, and still do, as a two-way agreement – the business flexing around me and me flexing around the business. At each interview I presented a clear plan with confidence, which at the time, not long after I’d returned to the workplace from maternity leave, was a big feat.
Fast forward a decade and last year I made partner at EY aged 33. EY was the only firm that seemed receptive to my plan; in fact, we spent time during that first interview talking about how we could make it work together. Importantly, the person interviewing me worked flexibly too – four days a week as a partner.
I appreciate that I’m one of the lucky ones – my plan worked out. Even 10 years on, flexible hiring and working remains the exception rather than the rule for most. According to Timewise’s most recent “flexible working index”, just 8.7% of jobs advertised in the UK offer flexible working options, yet 79% of people searching for part time or flexible roles feel locked out of the jobs market. EY advertise all its job vacancies as “open to flexibility”.
What will help shift perceptions and behaviours, in addition to organisations updating their hiring policies, is talking more openly about how most of us organise our day around our responsibilities. We all have a life outside of work and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about it, even during a job interview. Whether it be children, a hobby, a second job, a business venture or being a carer.
My diary is open to all and is candid. A physio appointment, a coffee with my mentee, taking my son to the orthodontist, a client board meeting and, more recently, medical appointments for my 95-year-old grandmother, whom I care for. I’ve taken the same approach with my clients and I’ve never had a bad reaction. They have lives outside of work too.
It’s a change in mindset, not just for employers but employees too. In the early days I was confident in my ability but I probably did have a preconception that working part-time would limit my career progression.
What I quickly realised was that if I took responsibility for my development, I could make sure that I got the same opportunities as if I was working full-time. So I put my hand up more frequently and offered solutions of how we could make it work. And it made me stand out – I was perhaps more willing to flex around the business and our clients because they flexed around me.