Flexible Working: Balance

Laura Jordan Bambach, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer at Mr. President started out as a digital artist in the 1990s, and has worked at some of the most creative shops in London. As co-founder of SheSays, an award-winning global organisation focused on the engagement, education and advancement of women in the creative industries, flexible working has always been high on her agenda. Mr. President is a female led company, two out of the three founders are mums, and their entire senior leadership are parents.

Bambach joined the managing partners Claire Hynes and Nick Emmel, both former directors at Dare, as the third agency partner at Mr. President in 2013. “We all felt that the time was right for a change. We wanted to build something where we could leave a legacy with our work and make a difference in the world, and the clients we worked with; all of this stuff which seems quite simple but it’s actually hard to do in a large organisation.”

It was important from the start that they had a clear structure defined to help parents. “Claire works from home one day a week; when my son was younger I’d go home to work on a Friday afternoon, and I start at 10 to get him to school, but also for my own thinking time. But it’s important to make sure everyone understands that they can work flexibly, regardless of the reason. There is an allowance for that at Mr President, as much as possible.”

Flexible working is essentially any type of working that is different from the standard 9–5 working day. It could mean different start and/or finish times, which is often called flexitime. It could mean working from home for part of the week, working part time or job sharing, or compressed hours. Fundamentally though, there has to be tangible benefits for the employer, it has to work both ways says Bambach. “If there is a pitch on, there is still an expectation that you are going to work a little late. Hopefully not an all-nighter but you may need to be in early or come in on your day off sometimes, there are meetings that you need to take which might mean you need to be in the office.”

Whether or not flexible working is suitable for everyone is another argument. At Mr. President it largely depends on their job role and responsibilities, and the work load in any given week, as Bambach explains. “If for example you’re in a Creative Director type role where you’re looking at work and giving feedback then this works best face-to-face. It’s just a case of making sure everyone is being responsible for their job. We’re a small agency, and we know each other so well, there’s a lot of trust that people will get their work done. And nowhere to hide!”

One of the prevailing arguments from some employers however is this notion of ‘presenteeism’ – a somewhat archaic view that you need to be sat at your desk to do your job. “Being stuck at your desk, particularly in the creative industry is a terrible curse because you don’t make your best at your desk – ever.” reflects Bambach.

“If anything, knowing how creativity works – the fact that you are bringing different ideas and concepts together, having external input, at your desk is counterproductive. Taking a walk, thinking about concepts in a more fluid way, it really helps in terms of the quality of work you produce.”

Yet despite it’s growing presence in the office, what happens if colleagues are less supportive of the changes? What can management do to change this attitude amongst their teams? “Agencies need to cultivate a culture whereby younger colleagues are not taking the ‘burden’.” says Bambach, who believes it has to come from the top. “Flexible working should be available to anyone who needs it for whatever reason, and it should be understood that’s just the way it works, and that everyone is doing their job well – regardless of being in the office or not.”

Earlier this year, Dawn Butler, shadow women and equalities minister for Labour, explained that the change to the law is essential to closing the gender pay gap and dismantling the structural barriers that hold women back from promotion and progression. “We need an economy that works for women, not against us.” Recently Labour have announced promises to introduce a "step-change" in women's working rights if they win the general election, pledging to boost pay, increase flexibility, and strengthen protections against harassment and discrimination. It’s a decision welcomed by Bambach.

“One of the issues women have encountered frequently is being underestimated once they come back from maternity leave, certainly something that Claire and myself experienced. The expectation of you and your career is less, even if your ambition is the same,” says Bambach. “You’re almost put in a box – people don’t understand why you’d want to come back to work full time; they question your commitment. There’s a lot of prejudice around it.”

Shared leave didn’t exist when Bambach had her son, but even now when comparing paternity leave and maternity leave, she argues that men still don’t get paid what a woman would in the same situation in most workplaces. It’s a situation that leaves the responsibility of child rearing firmly on the shoulders of the woman. Inevitably her career stalls as a result. “There are so many women in their late 20’s and early 30’s whose earning potential should be approaching the maximum, but because of this same prejudice they stall.” says Bambach. “The expectation that there’s always a man in the background taking the role of the breadwinner is so regressive.”

The demand for flexible working has been gaining pace since the policy was first overhauled in 2014 to ensure everyone qualified to request flexible working, as long as they had worked continuously for their employer for 26 weeks or more. Under Labour’s plans, employees would have the right to request flexible working from day one of their employment, with a “presumption in favour of flexible working”.

“Business gets very lazy around this idea of bums on seats and thinking that this is an easy way to solve a productivity problem.” continues Bambach. “Actually you find that people who work flexibly get more done in their day to day here, they’re often more energised, they’re happier because they’ve got more balance. Productivity goes up.”

Giving flexibility over where, when and the hours their people work is on the rise, yet there are still only a small number of quality flexible roles available – and even fewer are advertised in the public domain. What advice would she give to designers or senior creatives on the hunt for a flexible role? Are they advised to apply for a full time role and negotiate flexible hours later? Or should they bring it up in the interview?

“You absolutely have to be upfront about what you need and be honest about that,” says Bambach. “I know it’s difficult – not everyone is forward thinking, and you will always find places that say no when you ask about flexible working, but I don’t think it’s right to keep this from a prospective employer.” After all, there might be very real reasons why that particular role can’t be done by someone working flexibly, and the worst thing you can do is accept a job and then mention it afterwards, adds Bambach. “I would say bring it up at interview; or better yet, approach workplaces that embrace it because you’ll be happier working somewhere where it’s part of the culture already. We do it here because it’s the right thing to do.”