Everyday flexibility: ‘It’s about empowering people to decide when, where and how they work’

PwC director Sharon Noble

PwC director Sharon Noble

When mother-of-three Sharon Noble was collecting her daughters from school recently, a friend commented on the fact that she doesn’t work, envying her ability to be there for everything from the school run to sports day.

“I do”, she protested, shocked that the school gate crowd could be oblivious to her daily juggle as a director of PwC and head of the HR business partnering team, supporting 70 professionals.

“I explained what I do for a living and that I work flexibly, but she almost couldn’t believe I could turn up for assemblies and yet still have a senior role in a firm like PwC,” says Noble. “That made me think how massive it is; that I can go to nearly everything I want to, and also just crack on with my job.”

Flexible working used to be synonymous with women returning to work after having a baby and wanting to do their role differently, “but the implication of a narrow policy often resulted in individual inflexibility which didn’t sit well in a client service business”, says Sarah Churchman, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing at PwC.

Woman with baby son (6-11 months) sitting at table at home

Firms such as PwC are harnessing technology to enable everyone to work flexibly – on their own terms. Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

“What then typically happened, despite the desire to accommodate talented people, was that they were then placed in non-client-facing roles, which meant people with potential were taken away from career-defining client projects.”

What’s changed, thankfully, is that firms such as PwC are harnessing technology to enable everyone to work flexibly – on their own terms. For Noble that means integrating her working life with bringing up her children, but for other members of her team it means something quite different.

“When we’re organising a meeting, someone might say they can’t do Wednesdays as they leave early for a dance class, or Thursday mornings are out because that’s when they go for a run,” she says. “A gym class is no less important than my desire to work flexibly so I can do the school run, and if the flexibility to fit those things in keeps someone healthy and balanced, who am I to take that away by demanding we’re all in the same room at 8am? That’s ridiculous, and today’s technology means you’d be hard pushed to justify why you’d demand that of anyone.”

It’s the natural evolution of what firms used to call a flexible working policy. Nowadays, PwC uses the term everyday flexibility. “It’s about empowering our people to decide when, where and how they work, and providing the technology to facilitate that,” says Churchman. “We know from our engagement survey that there’s a correlation between wellbeing, engagement and performance. If people feel empowered and in control, that impacts their wellbeing, which impacts their performance, which impacts our business.”

What’s driven this approach is demand: a growing number of people entering the workplace needing balance because they have other responsibilities beyond work. At PwC, where millennials make up 80% of the global workforce, this prompted a shift in focus.

Business people on video conference

Cloud and communication technologies make it easy for staff to decide when, where and how they work. Photograph: FS Productions/Getty

Specifically, PwC has invested in G Suite, Google’s set of cloud computing, productivity and collaboration tools, software and products, while an intelligent tool rooted in artificial intelligence matches PwC’s business opportunities with the availability and skills of the 22,000 people in the UK business, improving the efficiency with which the firm resources client management. Google guides – a team of in-house users who take on a tech support role – have also been key to embedding the new technology.

“All employers are finding that there’s a generation entering the world of work who are more familiar with technology than those who are leading our organisations,” says Churchman. “Having a learning culture and constantly upskilling ourselves has never been more relevant and pertinent.”

Noble, who worked for PwC earlier in her career and recently returned to the business after several years working for a law firm, says technology has fundamentally changed things in the intervening years.

“I’m working at home today as we’ve got builders in but I’m just as accessible to my colleagues as if I was in the London or Birmingham office – my whereabouts makes zero difference to my ability to get the job done,” she says.

If there’s a flipside to greater flexibility, it’s that technology can tempt you into being available 24/7.

“Our people are very committed to delivering to our clients – they’re high achievers who want to do a good job, so we actively encourage staff to take regular digital detoxes and have a very visible Responsible Technology policy,” says Churchman.

“You do have to be more disciplined about when you’re not available if you’re working flexibly – that’s the gremlin in the system,” Noble says.

“There’s little point organising my working day around the school run if I’m back on email the moment we get home. The danger, if you’re not careful, is that you’re not completely present for the very thing you wanted flexibility for.”


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more