Flexible - but not part-time

Some say you can't run an agency if you're only in the office three days a week. Forster Communications' managing director Amanda Powell-Smith explains how she makes it work.

Congratulations to the fifteen women who have been selected as the first mentees on PR Week’s Mentoring project. I look forward to reading about what they are learning from their talented mentors and keep my fingers crossed that their progress in PR will continue; it is critical for all our businesses that we enable women to return to work after maternity leave. 

As a business owner, it won’t be surprising that I believe women make an important contribution at board level. As a mother, I also understand the realities of juggling home and work life, where both clients and children have 24/7 demands. It is not easy – but with flexibility and focus it is both possible and rewarding for everyone involved.

We need to move on from a ‘time is money’ mentality and start considering the value that is created in that time. The opportunities for working reduced hours increase as an individual’s skills become more clearly defined and autonomous, making it easier to identify their value to the business and enabling them to deliver much of their quality input on their own. 

Whereas part-time work implies a stop-start relationship with the business, successful reduction of working hours relies on a flexible attitude from both employer and employee. Neither PR services nor life can be switched on and off on demand, but both can be managed. 

Flexible working needs a strong team culture in the office and a multi-layered home team to counter emergency childcare or a sick nanny. It is also critical that everyone identifies their ‘overflow’ opportunity. 

It is an industry reality that some out-of-hours work will always be required and time needs to be found that does not conflict with childcare responsibilities. While I do not support long-hours working cultures (and believe they are counterproductive to good client service), this overflow needs to be recognised as part of the job, like it always was before children, and not become a point of bitterness. Ultimately, it comes down to respect; you respect your employer by taking calls on your ‘day off’ and not missing deadlines, and they respect you by not calling unless it’s urgent and creating a realistic workload for the number of days worked.

Today’s technology means people can work from any location, but Forster has learnt that it is important to spend a minimum of three days a week in the office with colleagues in order to contribute to and benefit from company culture.  However, the ability to work either a fourth day or one out of five days from home each week can make a huge difference to quality of life without impacting quality of service. Indeed, cutting out commuting time and creating a focused time to think without interruption creates winning results.

This focus is key. Tight deadlines make working mothers highly productive and very good at prioritising. When at work, it is important to focus on work and again this relies on trusted childcare options. It is equally important that you are not compromised when looking after your child. It takes personal discipline, but in most circumstances emails can wait and phone calls can go to voicemail; they can all be picked up when the child is asleep or at school.

Ultimately, motherhood and flexible working must not be viewed as ‘life getting in the way of work’, but of ‘work benefiting from the variety of life’. PR is driven by ideas and innovation, and we know that these are most likely to originate from someone who is leading a rich, fulfilled and enjoyable life. Why would any employer want to cut this talent out of their business?

Amanda Powell-Smith is managing director of Forster Communications, working four days a week with one day split across two from home.

Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ForsterAmanda

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