In previous roles throughout my career I have worked for local authorities which have all adopted flexible working hours policies. This is really useful for things such as attending personal appointments and accommodating one-off responsibilities. However, I found that flexible hours were not flexible enough and that I felt I wanted move to a reduced working week with more opportunities for remote working. Working mothers face an incredible amount of pressure at home and in the workplace. I felt as though I was meant to work like I wasn’t a mother and be a mother like I don’t work. After having children, due to the unwillingness of my employers at the time to allow a move to a more flexible working arrangement, I considered leaving the planning profession, a profession I am passionate about.
Fortunately, I was offered the opportunity to work for a private company on a part-time basis and work remotely as often as I wanted. This seemed to good to be true! My new employer made it clear that this kind of working arrangement doesn’t appeal to everyone and that some people find it to be lonely and isolating. Considering all of my options I felt I should give it a go and I can honestly say it is the best thing I have ever done.
My working week is 22.5 hours and is spread across 24 hours a day 7 days a week to suit myself and childcare arrangements. Basically, providing I am meeting client needs, I arrange my diary as it suits my family and home situation and each week is different. It is the ultimate in flexible approach to the working week. If I have my laptop, internet connection and my phone my office is with me. Effective use of technology really does facilitate a completely flexible approach to ‘office hours’.
Of course there are challenges: the arrangement does mean that it can be difficult to switch off and because I feel so motivated it is easy to be over-enthusiastic in terms of hours worked. I have been known to do emails and finish reports at 11pm, but I do try to be strict and I can just take that time off another of my working days. However, my boss is very supportive and often reminds me why I reduced my hours - ultimately to spend more time with my family and address major problems with my previous work life balance.
One perception of remote working is that you miss out on camaraderie and the ability to share problems in the office. However social media and online forums are really helpful in this regard and technology means colleagues at the end of a phone. To combat this I have made a conscious effort to engage in networking opportunities, of which there are many in many different formats to suit each personality. I have also launched a branch of Women in Planning for the North East which has been fantastic for building a network of like-minded planners who are all supportive of one another and happy to discuss any technical issues. As part of my role, there is a requirement to meet with local authority planners, developers and landowners, so I feel like there are plenty of opportunities to engage with others and when I am at home with my laptop I can get on with work without distractions of the office.
Overall, I consider that working flexibly and remotely has made me a more engaged and well-rounded planning professional as I seek out opportunities to engage with people and current planning issues in person and on social media.
I feel incredibly lucky to have the working situation that I do and that in itself is hugely motivational. I am determined to be productive because I feel valued enough by my employer to justify adopting such flexible approach to the working week in order to accommodate me. Circumstances change and not everyone fits into the 9-5, Monday to Friday mould. However that does not mean that they are not equally capable or any less passionate about their career. Technology available to facilitate remote working and having employers who are prepared to embrace the benefits of being truly flexible have the potential to ensure the planning profession is truly inclusive.
Helen Heward is associate at consultancy Planning House and chair of Women in Planning North East