working mom with kids

Flexibility: The key to creating a work culture that embraces all life stages

Jul 29

“Flexible work is investment in human capital because it shows the employees that they are important, and that the employer is willing to learn how to partner them in different phases of their life” — Professor Paulin Tay Straughan 


In Brief

  1. Remote work has unlocked new dimensions, meaning and appreciation for flexible work arrangements. This benefits parents with childcare responsibilities and retirees, since it is easier for them to continue their economic participation within their limited capacities.

  2. These flexible arrangements can only be sustainable if accompanied by changes in mindsets about parenthood, retirement and other life stages. By embracing these transitions and meeting individuals where they are, employers are more likely to attract and retain high performing staff.

  3. As each generation works longer than their predecessors, it is important to take a measured and holistic approach to our work-life. Both employers and employees have a role to play in designing a work culture that prioritises the individual’s well-being.

Back in 2016, Professor of Sociology Paulin Tay Straughan examined the barriers and facilitators to part-time work for married women with childcare responsibilities (mothers) and older adults entering retirement (retirees). Her thesis then was that “it is imperative in ageing societies with declining fertility rates that flexibility be mainstreamed to encourage optimum labour force participation” (Straughan, 2016). Fast forward to 2022, and her thesis not only still stands, but as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, is closer to fruition.

Today, Prof Straughan shares that remote work has unlocked new dimensions, meaning and appreciation for flexible work arrangements. With employers placing greater trust in their employees, and recognising outcomes and deliverables over mere face-time, groups like mothers and retirees can continue their economic participation easily within their limited capacities. However, in order for these flexible work arrangements to be sustainable, she believes it must be done meaningfully. Central to this, are mindset shifts that need to happen on the ground.


Changing the narrative around retirement

The notion of reaching the ‘golden age’ seems to have faded. With people today tying their sense of identity to their paid work, many individuals dread retirement and fear a loss in purpose. Retirees who take on part-time roles often feel less valuable due to a lower pay or placement into a job that does not leverage their strengths and experience. To overcome these problems, Prof Straughan encourages governments and employers to curate new roles that take advantage of the skill sets that these individuals already have. This could mean leveraging their ‘people skills’ or their ability to connect with others within their age group. While upskilling still serves an important role, she believes that this approach benefits both the employer and employee, since it encourages innovation and is primed for greater productivity.

Prof Straughan also highlights that money is not the only factor that should be considered when discussing retirement. Especially in societies that are facing an ageing population or have high disability rates, early-stage retirees who are fit, healthy and financially stable can be of help to those in need. By creating a culture that valorises volunteerism and offers intangible benefits like prestige and respect, retirees might feel more encouraged to contribute to society in meaningful ways that go beyond economic growth.


Integrating empathy and investing in people

Another much needed change is for employers to embrace the various life stages of their employees, instead of focusing on the disruption it causes. Parents of young children, for example, often feel torn between showing their commitment to their job while also wanting to give their children the attention and support they need. Prof Straughan shares that employers need to understand that these life stages are temporary and that by showing empathy and practising flexibility, they are more likely to attract and retain high performing staff.

She shares that “flexible work is investment in human capital because it shows the employee that they are important, and that the employer is willing to learn how to partner them in different phases of their life”. Empathy between team members is equally important and Prof Straughan shares that an ecosystem should be built where colleagues step in to help each other. Team members with older children can offer to lessen the load on new parents, and the favour can be returned when the former needs to take on elder care duties. She says, “When you have an office culture where team members look after each other through their ups and downs, and they help to close the gaps when gaps arise, then the organisation can grow and feel confident that their investments in their team members were worth it.”

Charts showing millenial priorities when looking for a job. 92% Money, 87% Security, 86% Holidays, 80%b Great people, 79% Flexible working


Changes on the horizon

As the gap between health adjusted life expectancy and life expectancy gets narrower, each generation can expect to work for a larger portion of their lives than the previous generation. Prof Straughan says that “if we are going to be working for 40-50 years in our lifetime, we need to pace ourselves, and what better way to do that than to follow the ebbs and flows of our life stages.” This could mean taking a step back to start a family and take care of dependents, before resuming to a full-time load during the middle stages. Another break could happen later in life when elder-care responsibilities come in.

A recent study (Manpower Group, 2020) showed that the millennial generation is already taking this view, with 79% citing flexible work in their top five priorities when looking for a job and 84% saying that they expect to take a “significant break at some point in their careers” (i.e., more than 4 weeks). Prof Straughan encourages more employers to embrace this holistic approach to work by offering flexible work arrangements that allow team members to contribute without compromising the responsibilities in their personal lives. She shares, “this is a very exciting and challenging time for organisational change. But it is important for employees to speak up and participate in the narrative that involves their well-being. We all need to play a part in designing and curating what we want our work-life to look like”.