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Access: Flexible working

Unlimited’s Senior Producer Jo Verrent joined a panel at the Museums Association annual conference to talk personally about flexible working and what it means to her…

I’m Senior Producer for Unlimited, and we are a commissioning programme for disabled artists. Flexible working isn’t just essential for our artists, it’s essential for our delivery team; Unlimited is quite unusual in that it’s a programme run by 2 organisations – Shape Arts and Artsadmin – both based in London, with me working on a freelance basis, based in Yorkshire; we work across the UK and internationally.

At least 50% of our delivery team are disabled people and we all have a range of access requirements, many of which mean we require a degree of flexible working. As I reckon it’s always best to talk from personal experience, that’s what I’m going to do – and that’s why I’m wearing my pyjamas.

I have a couple of impairments – I’m deaf, or deafened if you prefer; I also experience fatigue, pain and nausea. So, for example, after a couple of days out travelling around the country, I tend to work a couple of days from home. Well, more accurately, from bed.

Now if you say to people ‘oh I work from bed’, the most common reaction is ‘oh, how brilliant, I’d love to do that! Sounds great’. Nah. Can I just be clear there is a real difference between the luxury of having a lie in of a morning and having to choose between talking a shower or making a cup of tea ‘cause you just don’t have the energy to do both, or having to have a nap in between each email you send, or having to accept that you can’t do anything more in a day, however long your list of things to do might be.

When you say to most employers, I need to work from home sometimes or I might need a lie down in the middle of the day or if I travel over this distance I might need a rest day when I get there…. To be honest, the reaction isn’t great: ‘But your desk is in the office…’ ‘You can’t really lead a team if you aren’t sitting with them daily…’ ‘Long days are part of the culture of the organisation, particularly at your level…’ ‘We’ve all got to pull our weight…’ ‘I’m not sure it would be fair on everyone else’ and ‘we’ve got to be seen to treat people equally…’ are often spoken and pretty much always implied.

So how does it work? Actually, it’s not that hard. Online tools such as Skype, Facetime, Slack, Trello, Dropbox and more make remote working simple and accessible. I have to make a real effort to let everyone know when I am available to be contacted – basically ‘when I am at my desk’, and I join in with office banter – just remotely. I’m never offline for more than a few hours, unless I’ve booked a day off, so I may be napping but the delivery team may not notice as when I am awake, I keep an eye on our online chatroom and can step in if needed or plan for a more detailed catch up later that day. I have to be really clear with my team about what I am working on and where I am up to with it and find individualised ways to connect with each person so that they feel included in stuff we are jointly delivering when I’m not there in person. I have to be interruptible, the same as if I was in an office.

I prioritise key meetings that need to be face-to-face, doing the rest remotely which means less time wasted on the whole, and am ruthless in saying no to activities that aren’t core which is pretty much the same as everyone else but simply taken up a notch. I keep ahead of what I need to do, so if I miss a day it doesn’t put other people out. I use Access to Work – which is a government funded programme to support disabled people in work with the additional costs of meeting some access requirements. I have a taxi allowance which means if I’m knackered I can take a cab and claim back 90% of the cost rather than get more knackered walking or taking public transport and those in the team who can (due to their own access needs) are great about carrying my bag for me to help me save energy. Next weekend I’m at an event in Belgium. I’m pretty sure I won’t be taking part in the late night meet ups scheduled from 10pm – 2am but I’ll be at the breakfast planning sessions as mornings are when I am at my best.

When my needs are met, I can be flexible in return. If I can rest enough, not only can I do my best work, but also I have capacity to do a little extra when it’s really needed – such as when a crisis pops up. If I don’t look after myself and the shit hits the fan, then I just become a bigger part of the problem. I’m extremely conscientious – if I need to take an afternoon off, I’ll always catch up that time at the weekend and I reckon on the whole I do good work, I just do it a little differently.

If the starting point is that you want to get the best out of people, then you look for the ways to make that happen. And why would you want to get anything less than the best from anyone on your team? Now I know it’s not always this easy, and some roles do need people to be in a specific place at a specific time. But flexible start and finish times, rest areas with cushions and bean bags, a degree of understanding and clear (but sometimes difficult) conversations can all help.

It’s not that easy saying all this in public, but we want to stop hiding. I don’t want the way I work to be seen as something that’s shameful. I’m in a privileged position. I’m freelance, I’m at the top of the programme I run, and it’s a disability related programme so to some extent it’s par for the course. The vast majority of people with similar access issues to mine don’t feel able to be open about their needs, don’t feel able to have that conversation about adjustments and flex within the way they work with their teams or bosses. I hope by saying all this – and wearing pink pyjamas – I can at least make it visible. Making things visible is a step to making things more acceptable or at least getting things talked about. So think about it – just how flexible could each role in your organisation be? And how hard have you made it where you work for people to ask for more flexible working?