Chris Reed is the Founder of Restless Communications, an agency that helps organisations communicate at the speed, frequency and with the tone required for a social media age. He is @chris_reed on Twitter. Many moons ago he asked to work part-time and started to shift a culture.
Asking to work part-time at one of London’s top ten PR agencies
I was an Account Director in one of London’s top 10 PR agencies when my first son was born – back in 2003. I knew I wanted to buck the trend a bit and spend as much time with him as I could. But at the same time I also wanted to progress my career, so I knew I had to demonstrate to my colleagues and clients that it was possible to juggle work and home life.
And at the time, I did feel a bit of a social stigma. I was a bloke, rushing out the door several times a week just after 5pm knowing that many of my colleagues had another couple of hours left at their desks.
It helped that, at the time I was (and still am) pretty geeky and actually quite enjoyed tinkering with the various email and telephone systems to establish seamless call-forwarding and email/remote server access so that I remained in constant contact with the office. If people needed to call they could, and they also knew that I would always log on after bath time to clear any outstanding work.
Going against cultural norms
Later on, when both of my kids were a bit older I asked for, and was allowed to go down to working 3 days a week, so that I could spend more time with the kids, doing more drop-offs, collection and kids’ teas, and also so I could test whether I could juggle that with working for myself. I haven’t looked back since. It turns out I really am a ‘self-starter’ after all. Female colleagues had certainly negotiated four days and one or two did three days a week, but I was certainly the first bloke to do it. It was a few years ago now, but something I was very proud of. And it suited me perfectly.
Colleague reactions – being grown-up and forward-thinking
I have to say, that at the time my bosses were brilliant. The agency had always had a forward-thinking and grown-up approach to career development and I think they realised that they’d get the best out of me if we were both transparent and accommodating about what we both wanted. If/when they needed more of my time (working from home or in the office), I always found it. But at the same time, I was now much more in control of my diary. If I wanted to take two hours off in the middle of the afternoon to collect one of my kids and run a few errands with them I could. I simply made up the time elsewhere.
I can’t say for sure whether it really changed attitudes within the agency, but at the very least I think it showed other new parents that there were all sorts of ways to achieve a good work/life balance. I like to think it set the scene for more people having that proper grown-up chat about what they want, how they can still deliver excellent client service, and how they can push their career forward, even when working fewer hours or having less visibility in the office.
Once you ask and it gets a yes, then….ask for a little more
Once I’d broached the subject about what I actually wanted from work, and from my employer – and got a positive response, I actually felt much more empowered. I felt better about what I actually did, and much more valued as a result. (Hey, if they’re happy for me to do this, then they obviously think I’m doing a pretty good job), which in turn gave me more confidence when it came to financial discussions than before.
Having those discussions about achieving the work/life balance I wanted definitely made it easier to broach other sensitive conversations at work over money. It was actually quite liberating.
I’ve heard some people say the complete opposite – things like, ‘well work have let me go down to three or four days, so I shouldn’t push my luck and ask for a pay rise or bonus alongside everyone else.’ But I’d take the opposite view. Everyone knows that part-timers routinely work more than their contractual hours and you’re probably more productive when you are working, but also, if your employers are happy for you to reduce your hours then they clearly value what you do – probably more than you realised.
Any tops tips/encouraging thoughts you can share about how to affect culture change, even in just the smallest of ways…?
I was very lucky to work somewhere with a strong culture of personal development, and with hindsight, I think that’s one of the fundamental building blocks of any successful employment, and certainly any successful agency.
From an employer’s perspective the more you understand what your employee really wants, rather than just a pay cheque at the end of the month, and the more you can accommodate this, the happier your employees will be. It’s one of the sure fire ways of keeping people motivated and delivering great work.
And from an employee’s perspective, I can’t stress enough that even though the first conversation might be hard when you want to discuss changing the way you work, or telling your boss what really makes you tick (e.g. I’m in a band which practices every Thursday at 6.30 so I need to leave on time), most bosses aren’t ogres.
As long as you can see things from their perspective as and when you ask, and demonstrate how you can help them avoid problems at the same time as them letting you do what you want, then you’ll generally have a fair hearing.
I’ve also learned, since setting up Restless Communications, my own agency, that most clients are also remarkably relaxed about the culture you want to engender within your agency. 90% of the time if a client asks me for a meeting or call and I reply, actually, could we shift it because that’s when I’m on the school run – how about this other time, they’re very happy to do so. And if they can’t they can’t, I’ll obviously sort something else out.
The main thing I learned all those years ago, which I now put into practice and would encourage others to always do so is simple: Don’t be afraid to ask. Always see things from your employer’s perspective as you do so, but don’t be afraid to ask.