On International Women’s Day, Liz Zeidler reflects on how the pandemic is fuelling the urgency for ‘good’ jobs where men AND women are not only decently paid with flexible working conditions, but also cherished as the most important part of the workplace.
Just as the pandemic has prompted us to think hard about what a ‘good life’ looks like, and what a ‘good society’ should prioritise, so as employers many of us have had to grapple with what a good job is and how to provide it in the hardest of times to the most important people in any organisation – employees.
Trying to be a good employer is all I can claim during this past challenging year. And challenging it has been – juggling the demands of stretched clients, partners and budgets, and staff pushed towards breaking point by closed schools, home working and ever-growing workloads. Today on International Women’s Day, when the Trade Secretary is calling for flexible working to be the standard, it seems a good time to review again what options there are to make workplaces better for everyone.
At the Centre for Thriving Places we’ve always worked hard to be a good employer. We strive for a wellbeing culture and foster love and support (yes love is a word to be used in the workplace) across the team. Like every organisation have had people problems aplenty and made many mistakes along the way. But we know it’s important so we keep trying harder to get it right.
But what about now – when our team hasn’t been in the same room for a year and we’re all suffering the wellbeing effects of lockdown? With so many of us now full-time childminders, teachers, carers, shielding and much more, all while holding down our jobs, what can employers do to make things better and what does this tell us about ‘good work’?
We know from the evidence that good work is a complex thing. It requires enough stability and pay not to fear for your future or struggle to afford your present. It requires a sense of purpose, being valued, supportive relationships in the workplace and enough flexibility to give you a life outside work and the capacity to respond to its changes.
Let’s look more closely at these. First, work-life balance and flexibility – we already offer a four day week, one of the most significant ways that employers can create staff wellbeing, social equity and sustainability. Most of our staff work flexible hours, with options to adapt when needed. When schools and nurseries closed we quickly supported our affected teammates to drop days, shift working patterns and flex to the needs of their families.
I was shocked to learn that other employers were not doing the same. In a depressing number of cases, from large corporations to small charities, many employers seemed unaware that they could use the furlough scheme to enable staff to cover childcare needs. This was particularly apparent in male-dominated workplaces where in some cases no concessions were made for childcare, not even a recognition that this might be needed.
In 2021 this level of gender blindness is still rife. So as ever, it can fall not just to women to ask for flexibility but for their employers to find ways to provide it. Luckily, our women staff members know their rights and have progressive partners prepared to put their heads above some old fashioned parapets. So flexibility has been offered, furloughing used correctly and employees and children are supported. As a boss of mainly female employees I’m determined to fight for the recognition and value of these vital caring roles, delivered by all genders across our economy.
What about job security and decent pay? Both are hard to guarantee right now. The charity sector has had to focus on delivering vital services and the big grant funders have aligned their whole operations to funding those services. For those of us working to challenge and change systems that produce the vulnerabilities we are now seeing so clearly, funding is in short supply while our work is needed like never before. Our commitment to fair pay and job security means we couldn’t afford to replace staff who left in the past year in order to safeguard the jobs of those who remain. While this might be morally right, it hasn’t eased the workloads of our now reduced team.
For too long the not-for-profit sector, which is over 60% staffed by women, has relied on the selflessness that goes with purposeful work as justification for poor pay, long hours and high levels of stress – ‘we can’t pay you much but you’ll feel so good about what you do’. This pattern of low pay for higher purpose is replicated in other female dominated workplace including the Nursing profession currently in the news.
Not only does this wear pretty thin when you’re struggling to pay the bills or care for your family but new research that the Centre for Thriving Places has done for the What Works Centre for Wellbeing shows that while levels of a ‘sense of worthwhile’ are high in the not-for-profit sector, levels of overall life satisfaction are not. Security and decent pay matter, as does work-life balance to give time to enjoy life. Has the gender of the majority of this workforce allowed us to ignore poor pay for too long?
So where does this lead us as employers? Are we providing ‘good jobs’ and are we open to reflecting that ‘good’ might need to be redefined as the world changes around us? People are not ‘human resources’ to be mined and exploited. They are mothers, fathers, friends and carers, writers, cooks, volunteers and voters. We need to cherish them and give them, as much as our organisational and human capacity will allow, the security, pay, flexibility, sense of purpose and yes, the love they need and deserve.
Liz Zeidler, Chief Executive, Centre for Thriving Places