Flexibility – the key to productivity for working parents?

A case for flexibility: from increased productivity to supporting working parents. The time to embrace it is now.

This November we are doing something we’ve never done before: recognising International Men’s Day. We regularly mark International Women’s Day (8 March) by showcasing the amazing work women in our industries are doing to make a difference.  

To be honest, we only recently discovered International Men’s Day, but we thought, what a great opportunity to shine a light on positive male role models.  

The fact is that one of the biggest challenges professional women face is balancing childcare responsibilities with professional ambitions. However, if childcare responsibilities were more balanced – or if employers recognised that ‘working dads’ also need some allowances, then women would have more equal advantages at work. The goal of course is equality – a future where anyone regardless of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. can flourish equally. 

Thankfully, many men today take very active roles in parenting alongside their careers. We sat down with one such man, Jonathan Lewis-Jones, Managing Director (Publicis Commerce) at Publicis Groupe. Jonathan has responsibility for driving and developing commerce capabilities across Publicis in the UK. He has 20 years experience working both client and agency side; beginning in advertising at LOWE he worked across a variety of global brands. Then he went to join Nokia’s digital marketing organisation, which became Microsoft Mobile. Here, he worked in several roles across CRM, content, operations and strategy which resulted in him leading the global ecommerce function. He then moved to a WPP ad tech business before joining Publicis Media in 2017. 

We talked to Jonathan about his career and balancing his work and life as a dad. This International Men’s Day, read about Jonathan’s experience and how flexibility has freed him to be a more productive “working dad.” 

Tell me about your career and how you balance this with being a dad.  

I run our Publicis Commerce team in the UK, which is a consultancy practice within Publicis driving commerce capability across all of our agencies.  

I started my career in advertising before going client slide for a long stint and I now find myself back agency side within Publicis Media.  I am also a single parent with 10-year-old twin boys who live with me half the week, so life is busy. Like many of us there is just an awful lot that needs to be crammed into the working week.  

One of the draws about going client side was that I thought it would be more conducive to having a family and being a present parent. However, coming back into an agency environment after so long, I have been pleasantly surprised at how times have changed. The way that Publicis embraced flexible working was one of the key reasons I joined a couple of years ago. 

What does flexible working mean to you and what does it look like for you? 

Flexible working means being trusted and trusting your team to deliver their work wherever they may be.  In our industry though, I do not think though that flexible working means working more at home than in the office. We still ultimately work in a people business and building relationships in the workplace is critical.  

For me flexible working is being able to work and concentrate at home if you have a presentation to write rather than being in open plan. It is being able to drop the kids at school, pick them up or attend a play and not feeling guilty because you know you will be making up the time elsewhere. It is about not having to do a 4-hour round trip commute 5 days a week and being able to find the right balance of wellbeing and productivity. 

Flexible working is a needed acknowledgement that our lives are busy and sometimes complicated and if you want to get the best out of your people, then this needs to be recognised. 

Personally, for me it is all about time management. My diary is like a brightly coloured game of Tetris clearly marked in different colours when I will be doing what and that includes childcare related stuff. 

My team has full access to my diary, I would never hide having to leave early to do school pick up, dentist appointment or school play. However, it is then my responsibility to reassure them through my actions and output that I am more than making up for any flexi time taken off to look after my children. 

This means that I then adjust my working day accordingly, catching up on work in the evening or over the weekend. I’ve done food shops at work and presentations at home. You just do whatever it takes to get everything done. I strangely find that sometimes the busier I am the more productive I am. 

For years, we were told to make a real distinction between work time and home time.  Ironically, I now feel like I have achieved far more balance by mixing the two more. 

Do you think men have a harder time asking for flexibility than women? 

Unfortunately, I think they probably do in many businesses because of the insanely out dated notion that only mums look after kids. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a CEO (from another industry) who expressed outrage that a man in a senior position could be seen to leave early to pick up the kids. Unfortunately, I think this stigma may linger in some workplaces.  

I am lucky in that I work for a business like Publicis that openly embrace flexible working across the board, irrespective of your position in the business or gender. However, I have been in businesses previously where the management team conversations on flexible working are exclusively focussed on supporting working mums. 

Please do not get me wrong, whether you are a working mum or dad you have exactly the same challenges to deal with trying to juggle everything; the presentations, the homework and the 7am hunt for the charity day £1 coins. I just think than historically men have not enjoyed the same share of these conversations. 

Do you think it ever held you back in your career – having to make choices between working and going home to look after your children?

I don’t think it has ever held back my career because I have always been very up front with any employer about my domestic situation and the need for flexibility. I couldn’t work anywhere where it is an issue. 

That said it hasn’t always been easy juggling everything. There are of course times when you cannot move something, be that pitches, client meetings or last-minute travel. 

Like many of us, I have had to rearrange holidays and trips and sorting last minute overnight childcare is tough. I have had to bring the boys into work on a number of occasions, once when they were much younger one of them insisted on wearing a suit, tie and carrying a brief case and I left them role-playing with a white board, so happy! 

Now they are older and a bit more cynical and stare into an ipad but they understand and I think it’s important they do. I would like them to grow up with an appreciation of how hard both their parents work to juggle life at work and home. 

Do you find that flexible working has impacted your productivity?  

I can safely say that flexible working has increased my productivity no end. I have the freedom to craft my day around my life. I am very busy, we are all very busy but I am given the freedom to mix my work and my home life so I can find the right balance and that balance will likely change on a daily basis.  

Having an overwhelming amount of ‘stuff’ to do forces you to manage your time in an incredibly efficient manner. It is also important to me that I am seen to role model the behaviours that I would like to encourage. 

Do you feel there is a stigma today on people who work flexible schedules? If so, what can be done to change that? 

In some large companies undoubtedly – but then it is up to the individual, with flexible working comes a considerable amount of responsibility. If you take advantage of flexible working then you need to clearly demonstrate to both your manger and your peers that it will not compromise your output – you should really be looking to show how it is enhancing it. 

Teams need to openly discuss and contract a way of working that means you get the best out of individuals and therefore the team whilst maintaining the necessary trust. Anybody who is seen to break that trust will soon be called out by other members of the team and natural corrections made. 

What is your advice to businesses trying to create more flexible working environments – what are the keys to success? 

When it comes to supporting working parents, I certainly think that being seen to discuss dads on par with mums is a key first step. However, one of the important things is that the flexible work conversation needs to be broadened beyond just childcare.  

Flexible working is here to stay. It will be a key component of the modern work place and people at all levels in the business need to understand how to manage this. 

Junior team leads need to be educated on how to manage people based on their output rather than presentism. It requires individual teams to be prepared to discuss this openly and agree on a way of working where you can effectively operate as a team whilst creating the needed trusted environment. 

The way we work is going to change immeasurably over the coming years; we will all work more flexibly across multiple locations with better collaboration tools. Supporting working parents (mums and dads equally) is certainly a first step on this journey but businesses need to have a much longer-term vision about supporting flexibility in the workplace. 

I am lucky to work for a network in Publicis that is taking its first steps on this journey. Implementing a formal flexible work policy across the entire UK organisation is no small task. Will there be teething problems? Of course. But is it the right thing to do to attract and retain the best talent in the industry? Absolutely. 


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Author: Alice Weightman

As Founder and CEO, Alice established Hanson Search in 2002 and has since gained a reputation as one of the leading search professionals in senior appointments across communications, developing an incredible network globally.

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