When I get home from London tonight there will be no tumble of shoes left lying by the door, no bags to trip over in the hall, no damp towels on the beds. There will be milk in the fridge. And it will be very quiet. After some 20 years of balancing my role as a managing director at Accenture with the roller coaster ride that is motherhood, our girls have settled into their own lives. It’s a strange time and one that has made me somewhat reflective on my years of juggling.
I have absolutely loved being a working mum. Enjoying a challenging, ever-changing-always-learning job, benefiting from the disciplined hours I learned to keep (or I’d hear about it!) and adopting my manager’s mantra of "family first." What was it that made it (mostly) work? In a word: Flexibility.
Accenture researchi published in 2016 revealed that doubling the pace at which people learn new digital skills could halve the time it takes to close the gender gap in developed countries. Increasing women’s "digital fluency"—the extent to and ways in which they use the Internet—accelerated their ability to find and stay in work and, as women gained more advantage from the new skills than men did, helped to close the gap.
Digital fluency has the power to bring almost 100 million more women into the workplace by 2030 and could cut decades off the pay gapii. Digital fluency brings flexibility. It’s what makes it possible to join a meeting from home, work on the train, minimize out-of-town travel, catch up on training at a time that fits round your schedule.
Our researchiii showed how women were using technology to get ahead. Women on the fast track in their organizations (those moving further and faster than others at their company) were using more technology to help balance their commitments: 74 percent of fast-track women worked some kind of flexible schedule and half of the working mothers on the fast-track said it gave them more control over where and when they worked. It’s also, now that I reflect on it, what I did. I became an enthusiast for virtual working and a master at any technology put in my hands by my company that enabled me to make my office wherever I needed it.
In our 2018 researchiv, the real impact of this kind of empowerment hit home. In an effort to understand the impact of workplace culture on women’s ability to advance and thrive at work, we developed an econometric model to establish which, of more than 200 factors, actually make a difference to women’s success. Forty of the factors were influencial, 14 strongly so.
In workplaces where more of the 40 factors were present, women were more likely to love their jobs, aspire to be leaders and to advance. Again, we saw the power of flexibility. Half of the 40 factors and half of the strongest factors are about employee empowerment. They included factors such as not having to change your appearance, feeling safe to report incidences of harassment and being trusted with responsibility. But they also included many aspects of flexibility, for example:
Consider what these really mean to an employee. When my girls were young there were two things I dreaded: the 8 a.m. breakfast meeting and the weeklong training course. My commute takes around 90 minutes so breakfast at 8 a.m. means catching the 6:30 a.m. train. For a working family it’s a nightmare. And training courses? Well, I’ve always enjoyed business travel and the peace of a long, child-free flight, but a week away was a challenge. I once heard Allison Pearson (author of “I Don’t Know How She Does It”) liken the instructions she left her husband while away on a business trip to “an invasion plan for a small country” and I clearly remember leaving my other half a note explaining that Dundale Road School was not on Dundale Road.
Flexibility is not about policies and rules; it’s about embracing a completely different way of working where people have the tools, trust and freedom to blend family and work in way that makes both possible. Working from home a day or two a week allowed me to see the girls off to school, to check in with a teacher and to hear about the day’s triumphs and woes as they burst through the door.
But these culture factors, this kind of empowerment doesn’t just work for women. The same factors that work to help women thrive help everyone; LGBT+ professionals and those identifying as non-binary are three times more likely to advance, there are twice as many young women managers and men are twice as likely to advance to senior manager in environments where more of the factors were present.
The case for flexibility in helping women be in work, stay in better paid work and to advance at work is clear. But if that’s not enough to convince business leaders of the need to work tirelessly to make his or her organization a more flexible one then consider this: the same workplace culture factors that help workers to thrive and advance also enable them to be more innovative. We measured the relationship between culture and “innovation mindsetv”—an index that scores the willingness and ability of workers to be innovative—and found the link to be very strong indeed; as culture improves, peoples' innovation mindset grows stronger.
We also found that 70 percent of the improvement gained in innovation mindset as culture improves comes from the empowerment culture factors. Eight out of 10 of the strongest factors were about empowerment; flexibility, it seems, has a vital role to play in unlocking innovation in both men and women at work. It’s time to rethink the way we work and build a more equal, more innovative workplace for all.