Last winter, my husband and I decamped to a tiny village on the Isle of Harris where we had bought a house the year before. With the exception of one neighbour in the village, who appeared on his drive each weekday morning dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase and drove off to an office job in the nearest small town, our neighbours had an entirely different approach to work from city dwellers.
It was an approach that, we felt, city dwellers could learn from. Islanders might have one or several part-time jobs. They might have some sheep or a couple of cows. They might tweed. They might rent out a second house as a holiday home. They might grow fruit and vegetables on the croft (a small rented farm, comprising a plot of arable land attached to a house and with a right of pasturage held in common with other such farms).
In short, the islanders had a flexible approach to work and a varied – if sometimes quite hard – life. The delineation between work life and the rest of life was much less stark than it typically is for people in the city with a full-time job, and the islanders seemed to be in charge of their destinies in a way wage slaves often aren’t.
It’s interesting, then, to learn that a flexible approach to work is now becoming much more common in the City of London as well. New research from the recruitment firm Astbury Marsden shows that four out of 10 female City staff are now able to work flexible or compressed hours (up from 30% last year and 23% the year before that) and that more than a third of male City staff now also have this option.
Working flexi-time is an alternative to going part-time that allows workers to remain in a full-time position, thereby keeping their career progression on track and avoiding a pay cut. According to Astbury Marsden, it allows workers to take greater control over their working day and is increasingly valued because it enables them to meet other commitments or pursue outside interests.
The obvious other commitment is childcare. But flexible working can, says Astbury Marsden, be attractive to all staff. And traditional City firms are increasingly in competition for staff with other industries such as the fintech sector, where the trend towards flexible working is gathering pace, and must find a response.
As well as flexi-time, that response can be facilitating working from home and part-time work. These too are becoming more common in the City. Six out of 10 City staff now regularly work from home (up from just over half last year), and 35% of women and 24% of men work part-time of do a job-share (26% and 18% respectively last year).
Does this represent some kind of profound cultural change? Well, it might.
“Before the credit crunch, the long-hours culture in the City was all-pervasive,” says Bardia Sohi, chief operating officer at Astbury Marsden. “Since then, however, we have seen a sea change in attitudes. City employers are increasingly recognising that being more accommodating about working arrangements is vital if they are to attract and retain the best talent.” This – of course – benefits women. “Women in the City now have more options than ever to enable them to pursue their career paths right the way through their professional lives,” says Sohi.
But, in many ways, these more flexible work patterns are just a return to what was normal in most societies, say, 100 years ago, and is normal still in our Hebridean village: women and men working at different tasks while running a household. A hundred years from now, instead of talking about breaking down barriers for women, we may look back on the decades when women were housewives and men were office workers as a weird historical aberration. By then, we may all have a few sheep too. OK, maybe not the sheep.
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