David Dunbar is head of digital workplace transformation at Nationwide Building Society. A long-time advocate and user of flexible working, he says dads should push to work differently.
When my son was born, almost 20 years ago, I was working for a large organisation in a management role. At that point, working away from the office wasn’t always easy because the technology was a lot more unstable than it is now (leaving the culture aside), but I was lucky – able to work flexibly and spend a lot of my time home-based.
What that meant for me was that I was able to see many more of those golden moments than might otherwise have been the case. I was the one that he took his first unsupported step towards. I can’t remember if I heard his first word or not, but I certainly heard his second or third. I was able to see him during the day whenever I took a break, rather than just at weekends or in the evening (when, frankly, we both tended to be tired and grumpy) and I was there to help with many of the crisis points.
In between all of this enjoying-being-a-dad stuff, work still happened. It happened during the normal working day, and quite often in the evenings. My team got together when we needed to, we spoke often and we made full use of the somewhat basic technology we had at the time to hold conference calls and share documents. When I needed to be in front of a customer or at a face to face meeting then I was there. When I didn’t need to be physically present, I wasn’t.
That was a hard discipline at first, being bullish about when a virtual meeting was the right approach, despite the inevitable “we have to do this in person” expectation. The hardest bit was often being the only person on a loud-speaking telephone while everyone else was in a room. It’s like being invisible. There are only two routes to go down at that point. Either you zone out and accept it, or you become one of the few people at the meeting actually listening to what is going on, and build a reputation for making very loud, but quite insightful, interjections.
Ultimately it did my career no harm, and in time I was able to spread my philosophy. I may even have been healthier. Many times I have been at the end of a telephone listening to a room full of people, one of whom is audibly sniffling. Within a couple of days I am often the only one left working.
It wasn’t all rosy, and I’ll come clean and admit that when my son suffered from colic, I moved back to the office for three months. I know how lucky I am to have been able to work that way.
Have we progressed?
So, 20 years later how far have we progressed? Truth is it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Flexible working is provided by some employers very effectively, and mobile working is now much more common. A lot of us now have greater freedom around where and when we work. However, presenteeism is still endemic in many areas. You are still likely to be wished a sarcastic “good afternoon” if you turn up later than the average, and objective-based management is something that lots of managers still find too difficult to do well. Not everywhere of course, but in far too many places.
My advice therefore is still what it was 20 years ago. Sell the benefits of flexible working hard to your company, enjoy the benefits to yourself, be proud of the outputs you produce and don’t be afraid to push your colleagues to learn to use the tools for collaboration that are almost certainly available to them.