Flexible working in communications: creating a culture of good work-life balance

7th April 2019

By Claire Hastings

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

This February Stempra examined work-life balance for people working in communications through a lunchtime panel discussion hosted by the Academy of Medical Sciences. Melanie Etherton, Communications Officer at the Academy, was on the panel and here shares key tips and advice for improving work-life balance in the science communication sector and beyond.

Our 24-hour news media and the growing importance of feeding digital communications channels could result in STEM communicators being tied to our computers around the clock. Yet, more companies are open to remote and flexible working than ever before.

Many suggest it is better for our health and wellbeing to work fewer hours, and by doing this we might be more productive. Some capitalise on their time outside of work to follow a new passion or supplement their income.

So how can we make the most of opportunities that exist now and in the future, to live a more rounded life?

The Academy of Medical Sciences’ MedSciLife campaign aims to promote different working practices and explore how passions and achievement outside work can influence careers. Stempra teamed up with the Academy to discuss how we achieve work-life balance in communications.

The strongest message to come from the session was that we need to normalise flexible working and set new expectations. Otherwise we won’t attract and retain the best people in science communication, and our industry will become less inclusive and less diverse.

As the nature of our jobs changes, ways of working are changing too. We don’t all need to be sat at a desk Monday to Friday, and must empower people to find the approach that works for them.

Read on for tips from the event on creating a culture of work-life balance, and how best to ask for and manage flexible working:

“My manager sent an email about wellbeing at 11pm at night…” Top tips for managers:
• Model the behaviour you want to see – people will copy you. If you don’t take holiday or don’t leave the office on time, your team won’t either.
• Have open and clear expectations: advertise flexible working when recruiting, talk about it with your team, be clear about only expecting responses within working hours.
• Beware presenteeism – staff who are ‘visibly’ responding out of hours sometimes get more credit and opportunities, even though being present doesn’t equal being productive.
• Ask how people are doing. Find out about their wellbeing, and be aware that flexibility is vital for some people in enabling them to manage their health. This is particularly true of people with long-term health conditions, but should be incorporated into line management for all.
• Trust people – don’t say no to flexible working until you’ve tried it. Remember you can always refine ways of working, nothing is forever.

“I can pretty much do my job in bed – and I do.” Top tips for flexible working:
• Technology means you can work from anywhere – as long as you have a mobile phone and a laptop.
• If you’re dealing with ill health, know what you need and ask for it. Panel members observed things got easier once they could be open about ill health, as their colleagues could help identify their red flags and support them.
• You don’t have to wait until you need flexible working – it’s OK to ask just because you want it and not wait to have a concrete reason. Panel members now working flexibly wished they’d asked earlier in their career so they could have learnt earlier about their own best ways of working.
• Flexible can be invaluable for people with caring responsibilities, but it isn’t only for them: having a side hustle, hobby or interest is also a justified reason to work different hours. It is equally valid to ask for flexible working without a specific reason, simply because it would work best for you.
• Being efficient and knowing how you work is particularly important for freelancers. The UK Freelance Ready Reckoner (used by many freelancers for setting day rates) assumes freelancers are about three times more efficient than normal staff.

“Hours are nine to half five…” Negotiating flexible working with a reluctant employer:
• Just because an organisation has set hours and a flexible working policy officially, doesn’t mean it happens in practice. There may still be a long hours culture which is very difficult to step away from. Ask around before accepting a job to find out what the work culture is really like.
• The best time to negotiate working hours and flexibility is after being offered a job, but before saying yes.
• Make a business case for changes to working practices:
o Use the evidence. Remind your employer that flexibility increases productivity and creativity.
o Think about how the skills or connections you bring from outside work could benefit your organisation.
“My connections through volunteering at IntoUniversity, a charity supporting disadvantaged students, has helped us diversify our work experience: the benefits of flexible working cut both ways.”
o Use your organisation’s existing policies on diversity, inclusion and flexible working to help make your case.
• Try proposing flexible working as an experiment: have a trial period with a time limit, state how you will measure success and determine points to review.
• Use your relationship with your manager: ‘organisations’ don’t care for you, but people do.
• If they say no, wait, then ask again.
• Be flexible! Sometimes you need to spring into action late at night or very early in the morning – understand the trade-offs of your role and what you are or are not willing to accept.
• You will always find another job, so if you really want something be prepared to walk away. For instance, a panel member recalled asking for a sabbatical year:
“I thought ‘I’m going to do this’ – if they give me a year off, that’s great, and if they don’t that’s fine too and I’ll just leave and find something when I come back.” (They said yes.)
• Find internal or external champions at your manager’s level and use them push back – publicly praise what they do and privately ask them to support you.
• Organise with your colleagues. Collectively raising the issues on staff satisfaction surveys, or through staff forums will help promote flexible working practices.

“Enjoy it, and know that it’s not forever.” – managing work-life balance in a round-the-clock role

Some press officers or social media officers, especially in a busy comms team or early on in their career, will struggle to achieve work-life balance. They will have to be on call, monitoring social media or manning the out-of-hours press phone. It can be busy, but it can also be really exciting and give you a lot of experience. If you’re in that situation:
• Make sure you log the hours you are working and take time off in lieu.
• Be open about what is out of your control: accepting what you can’t change will help you switch off.
• Don’t be afraid to say that you’re sorry, you can’t help, and let it go.
• When you’re not on call, make sure you leave work behind and switch off from an ‘always on’ culture.
• Enjoy the job, learn from it, but know that it’s not forever. If you feel like it’s too much, it might be time to find another role somewhere else.

This was Stempra’s first lunchtime event and there were some really interesting discussions, led by our fantastic panel. Holding the event within core hours went down really well with attendees, who called on Stempra to hold more events like this one, or find new ways to be as inclusive as we possibly can. The committee listened and are in discussions about the best way to achieve that in future.

For more information about Stempra, an informal network for people working in science communication, visit https://stempra.org.uk/. The Academy of Medical Sciences was pleased to support this event as part of its MedSciLife campaign to promote diverse working practices.

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