How marketers are pushing for workplace flexibility

While brands struggle to define what they mean by hybrid working, they could be missing out on a wealth of talent in search of meaningful flexibility.

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Flexible, hybrid, remote – all terms that have characterised our working lives for two years. While the pandemic forced a dramatic shift to working from home, the tricky task now is negotiating what working life looks like in 2022.

Definitions of flexibility differ. Hybrid could mean one day a month in the office, or four days spent at your desk, depending on the organisation. Not only is the situation confusing for employers, the lack of transparency is challenging for candidates in search of flexibility.

Nor does this issue shows any sign of going away. Some 82.6% of the 4,463 respondents to Marketing Week’s 2022 Career and Salary Survey rate flexible or hybrid working as either important or very important. Crucially, 55.7% of female respondents say flexible working is very important to them.

However, 9.3% of all marketers have had requests to work flexibly or remotely turned down. The reasons vary from employers wanting staff in the office full time (34.2%) and brands not believing remote working is effective (26.5%), to companies operating a ‘one size fits all’ policy (24.5%).

While it is not a women-only issue, the need for greater flexibility normally increases for people returning to work after having children.

The reason Lindsey Fish left her corporate career in marketing was a search for flexibility. When she returned from her first maternity leave in 2013, her company informed her it was full time or nothing. She decided to strike out on her own with an events management business and founded Mums Enterprise, a child-friendly business event aimed at helping mums return to work.

Fish worked out that with nursery fees and bills, she would be left with just £600 in disposal income if she continued to work full time.

“I thought if I can’t earn £600 on my own then what have I been doing all this time? Having skills in marketing I was able to market myself and my business,” Fish explains.

“Mums Enterprise was focused on helping mums in my position find flexible work and start their own businesses. Because I couldn’t go back to my corporate marketing career, I identified a challenge many women had.”

The level of expectation of flexible working or hybrid working is just as important as salary.

Luisa Robertson

Following a two-year career break in 2018 after suffering post-natal depression with her second pregnancy, Fish took on a part-time marketing admin role to regain her confidence and then freelanced for return to work organisation Inclusivity Partners. In March she returned to full-time work as a partner programme specialist at BT Wholesale.

Despite reigniting her corporate career, Fish believes the lack of transparency in job ads is creating barriers for marketers searching for flexibility.

“The adverts themselves don’t necessarily mention much about flexibility and that puts a lot of talent off,” says Fish. “The whole approach to attracting women like myself needs adapting.”

She suggests job ads should carry specific definitions of flexibility, details on the location and salary. As Fish points out, asking someone returning to the workplace – often after several years – what their salary expectations are is unfair.

Salary Survey 2022: Brands strive to ‘nail’ hybrid working as demand for flexibility soars

Rachel Seal relates a similar experience. Working as a marketer in the events industry, in 2014 she fell pregnant but found flexibility was lacking when she returned from mat leave. On leaving the business Seal struggled to find a role offering the flexibility she needed, opting instead for a role doing admin work at an estate agent.

Keen to utilise her marketing skills she found a volunteer position with the National Childbirth Trust as a publicity, marketing and social media officer. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2018 she found the right role, a job share as marketing communications manager at logistics firm Gefco.

Working three and a half days a week, Seal explains the job share utilised the strength of two people in one role, offering the marketers flexibility and the company two dedicated employees.

Now helping a friend apply for a role, Seal sees issues with the fact job ads fail disclose a definition of hybridity, while salaries for flexible roles are rarely shared.

“Does hybrid mean one day from home and four days in the office, or does it mean 50/50?” she questions, pointing out that brands rarely list their office hours on job ads.

“What is the flexibility here? You’re asking me to do an eight-hour day which is fine, but can I start at 8am and finish at 4pm so I can make it home for nursery? Or is it a 9am to 5pm and that’s strict?”

Seal suggests marketers looking for flexibility should decide what’s achievable for them and seek advice from their wider network, including communities like the Mums in Marketing group on LinkedIn and Facebook.

“It’s about being clear what you want to achieve and being resilient, because you’re going to go for a lot of jobs where people are more flexible because they don’t have the commitments you have, or they have more support, so you are going to get knocked back a lot,” Seal advises.

“It’s about being open minded. You might need to change sector, as opposed to career. And really utilise your contacts, especially in this remote world we’re living in. Reach out on LinkedIn, network and show what you can do without being in a formal interview, so people start knocking on your door.”

The ‘great leveller’

Flexibility became crucial for Kimberley Upton when she had her first baby. Having worked for Blue Chip Marketing for a decade in account management, in 2014 she was asked to set up the agency’s strategy division. Relishing the opportunity, Upton grappled with the impact starting a family would have on her career.

“I kept my personal and professional life so separate, so if I had a bad day at home I never brought it into the office and I got this reputation for being a machine,” she explains.

When her first child was born in 2016 Upton came back on a part-time basis, an arrangement in some ways down to her credibility within the business as flexibility was less common at the time.

Now four months back from her second pregnancy, head of planning Upton sees far greater part-time roles and freelance opportunities available to marketers. She describes the pandemic as a “great leveller”, which forced everyone to work from home.

Does hybrid mean one day from home and four days in the office, or does it mean 50/50?

Lindsey Fish

Upton currently works three days a week from home and only goes into the office for collaborative sessions. She is passionate about setting an example, drawing on the experience of her first maternity leave six years ago.

“I would overcompensate and be apologetic, I would try to hide as best I could the chaos going on behind the scenes. I tried to go back and be the person I was before, I tried to be the machine,” she recalls.

“With two kids you think ‘How am I going to do this?’ It’s a whole different ball game to maintain the composure. But I’m a lot older and wiser, and I’ve embraced that it’s OK to be vulnerable. It doesn’t diminish the value you bring and so that’s the narrative I play out to the women within the agency.”

She tells her colleagues not to apologise if they take time out for their family and reiterates her trust in them to get the job done. Businesses need to respect employees as individuals, Upton argues, pointing to the growing popularity of personal content on LinkedIn.

“It helps with the empathy that’s needed. It helps with the vulnerability the pandemic has brought out in people. I think it helps establish a rapport and deepen relationships, which is absolutely needed in business,” she suggests.

Blue Chip is working on a five-year plan updating its ways of working to be as transparent as possible with candidates about its approach to flexibility. She advises marketers to establish healthy boundaries and tap into communities like Mums in Marketing, Bloom and SheSays, which offer solidarity and support.

“It’s great to feel like you’re not on your own and get advice in terms of ‘How do I pitch this and how do I have this conversation with my employer?’ Also having these kinds of narratives in the media is important,” Upton adds.

“Previously there was no visibility around this subject, but you’ve got the likes of the Co-op CEO Jo Whitfield who’s said she will take four months off to help her boys through their exams. Ten years ago you’d have never seen that.”

Owning the conversation

Luisa Robertson works two days a week as a communications manager. Pre-career break she was a senior communications manager for an NHS Trust, but after suffering post-natal depression decided to take time out to be with her family.

When she was ready to return the idea of job shares or flexibility for senior leaders felt “unacceptable”. However, Robertson believes a combination of the pandemic and tech improvements has “totally changed” the outlook on flexible working.

With the mat cover role she is currently in coming to an end in April, Robertson is seeing more part-time and remote working positions at senior levels, which she finds uplifting.

However, she believes work is still needed to get all employers on board with flexibility. Working briefly at an NHS Trust last year, Robertson had been reassured by the recruiter and head of comms the role would be as flexible as she needed. In reality, she was expected to return to the office full time.

“I set out from the beginning what my needs were and how I would only be able to meet them if I could work in that way. Transparency is key and making sure there’s clarity around hybridity even when you’re advertising,” says Robertson.

“There’s a lot of talk around making sure salaries are stated clearly on jobs, but the level of expectation of flexible working or hybrid working is just as important as salary, especially for a working mum.”

Su Button agrees flexibility is often a higher priority than salary. Formerly marketing manager at the Hempstead Valley Shopping Centre in Gillingham, Button has seen her peers worrying if they request flexibility up front in a job interview it could count against them.

“Do they need to be offered the job first to show how brilliant they are and then negotiate? That makes it incredibly difficult, people are unsure what to do,” she notes.

It’s really important for me to do the best work of my life and have a life.

Charlene Charity

If brands were transparent about their definition of hybridity it would cut the stress and help unlock talent, says Button, who believes marketers shouldn’t have to justify their desire for part-time work. Prior to being made redundant at the end of furlough in 2020, she had been in a job share which worked “fantastically” well.

“Being part-time you’re very committed, because you know you want to get the work done in that length of time,” she says. “Just because you’re working 9am to 5pm for 37.5 hours a week doesn’t mean your output is going to be greater than the equivalent of two people working that amount of time.”

A marketing director in the recruitment sector, Charlotte Rush saw her request for part-time work turned down when she returned from maternity leave in 2016. This was despite having worked at the company for six years and presenting the option of using the money saved on her salary to employ a marketing executive.

Now a freelance marketing consultant, Rush found it difficult to find flexible or part-time marketing roles at a senior level, at the salary she deserved. Now post-Covid she believes employers’ trust issues around flexible working have been addressed thanks to the mass shift to WFH.

She calls out the importance of communities like Mums in Marketing and the WhatsApp group Leaders in Marketing for helping marketers discuss flexibility. Rush urges marketers looking for flexibility to have the confidence to have those conversations.

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For those job hunting, she advocates proving yourself in the interview first, before having an open conversation about what you need from the role.

“If you’ve got a recruiter in the way of the job you don’t know what they’re saying to the brand, so I’d say let that come from you in the interview after you’ve proved you’re the right candidate,” she suggests.

Former head of live sports marketing at Amazon Prime, now head of strategy at Digitas, Charlene Charity urges marketers to ask those awkward questions about flexibility and culture in job interviews to get a feel for the business. Another good idea is to meet the wider team for informal Zoom chats.

“You’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you and it’s about finding a mutually supportive environment that fits culturally with your values, supports your passions and aligns with your purpose,” says Charity.

“I know my purpose is around being a great mum, friend, daughter and wife first and foremost, but I also want to do brilliant, game-changing work with brilliant people. It’s really important for me to do the best work of my life and have a life. Quite often organisations will give you one and maybe not the other.”

For female marketers, it’s also worth flipping the conversation on its head and ensuring conversations about flexibility empower men to consider different arrangements, such as opting for shared parental leave, says Charity. She believes younger generations seeing their older male colleagues working flexibly will give them the confidence to follow suit.