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A fashion for flexibility: the new way to work

Flexible working

Flexible working and the need for a good work/life balance is an increasingly hot topic, particularly among millennials. Drapers digs into balancing fashion and flexibility.

Drapers Next Generation, now in its ninth year, turns the spotlight on young fashion retail professionals and the industry changes shaping their careers today.

Long days, frequent trips overseas and after-hours networking are requisite in many fashion roles. Success in the fashion industry requires hard work, but today’s modern workforce is questioning how and where that work needs to be done. Laptops, tablets and mobiles have freed much of the industry’s workforce from the chains of their desks, allowing them to work from anywhere, at any time.

Technology giants such as Facebook Google have led the charge when it comes to creating a more informal working culture and offering flexible hours. At Google’s London headquarters, for example, employees can nap in sleep pods, and have lunch provided.  Suits have been replaced by trainers and hoodies, and the need to be in the office at 9am by the option to work remotely.

As a result, employees’ expectations have shifted, particularly among millennials. Research from Timewise (see box, below), a recruiter that specialises in flexible working, found that 92% of younger workers would like to work flexibly or already do so. Similarly, a 2017 survey from consultancy firm Deloitte found almost 70% of millennials were able to, within limits, start and finish work at a time they chose. More than 60% could work from somewhere other than the office, and businesses offering flexibility were rewarded with higher levels of loyalty.

“There are a lot of different types of flexibility,” explains Timewise programme director Natalie Gill. “It’s about busting the ‘mum myth’ that flexible working is just for parents and carers, although yes, absolutely, people might need to change how they work because of other responsibilities. But there’s plenty of demand coming from millennials and Generation Z without these responsibilities. People are now negotiating flexibility in the same way they negotiate salary.”

Start-up bonuses

Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Topshop and Zalando are among the retailers that highlight their flexible working options, but all employees who have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks have the legal right to request flexible working. However, in retail, it is often newer, nimbler businesses that can provide employees the most flexibility.

Online menswear styling service Thread, for example, takes a different approach to workplace culture and recruitment. It combines extensive research and headhunting to find the best person for each role, as well as setting candidates practical exercises to determine their skills through the interview process. For those who prove the right fit, Thread offers unlimited holiday and flexible working.

“We spent a lot of time thinking carefully about who we hire and, if you’re hiring well, you should have people you like and trust, who can develop their own schedule,” explains head of talent Melissa Trahan. “We like people to be around as much as they can, but we don’t have set hours. From a HR perspective, it means I don’t have to spend my time tracking why someone got to their desk at 9.30am instead of 9.00am.”

If you’ve hired people who are driven, who you trust, they can manage their time appropriately

Melissa Trahan, Thread

Trahan admits she initially had some concerns about unlimited holiday, a policy pioneered by Netflix and also adopted by Virgin Management in 2014 and Linkedin in 2015.

“We are of course aware that there’s a legal minimum, so we do have to track holiday to make sure we will know if someone isn’t taking enough, but I haven’t had to tell people to take more or less,” she adds. “It comes back to that idea that if you’ve hired people who are driven, who you trust, they can manage their time appropriately and take holiday at a time that is best for them and when they need to recharge.”

Cally Russell, founder of shopping app Mallzee and a Drapers’ 30 Under 30 alumnus, agrees that culture is key. At its Edinburgh headquarters, Mallzee balances remote working with days where employees need to be in the office for meetings.

“At a start-up like ours, everyone is trying to achieve the same goal. Where you do the hours to achieve that goal isn’t as relevant,” Russell explains. “Much of the time, work can be done remotely, allowing the team to go out and deliver what they need to, before coming back together and assessing what’s gone well and what to do differently. There are lots of different ways of working. Some people want to start early and be finished early, while others just aren’t morning people.”


Work-life balance

Although demand for flexible working is by no means coming from parents alone, it is still often a priority for those who want to balance a career and childcare.

Louise Deverell-Smith worked as an account manager for Diesel, but left the fashion industry after having children in 2008. She worked in recruitment for the next nine years until June last year, when she set up Daisy Chain, a platform that connects parents with businesses that are able to offer a flexible approach. These include retailers Jigsaw and JoJo Maman Bébé.

We’ve been really impressed with the talent pool of candidates looking to work more flexibly.

Louise Deverell-Smith, Daisy Chain

“I left fashion because I had just had a baby and couldn’t make it work with the travelling, the hours, and the taking people out in the evenings,” Deverell-Smith tells Drapers. “We’ve been really impressed with the talent pool of candidates looking to work more flexibly. The perception can be that someone who wants to work flexibly only wants to work three hours in the middle of the day [around childcare commitments], but that’s not the case. It’s about employers being really open to conversations with employees.”

Still, despite employees calling for it, some larger retailers still argue they cannot make a more flexible approach work, says Deverell-Smith: “We have spoken to some businesses who can’t get their heads round flexible working – they want people at their desks and they want to see them there at 9am. Some are nervous that, if they offer flexible working to some employees, the message will go out and they will be inundated with requests. It also depends who is at the top of each team and what their views are on flexible working.”

Gill agrees: “There are still some residual concerns about how to manage flexible working, and some employers have a culture of ’presenteeism’. They ask: ’If I can’t see people, if they aren’t visible, how do I know they’re doing their job?’”

The retail workforce has gone through seismic shifts, and is still experiencing them as businesses streamline existing roles and recruit for new skills. It is apparent that to attract the very best talent in the future, retailers will need to overcome their doubts and adopt a flexible approach.


Natalie gill timewise bw

Natalie gill timewise bw

Making flexibility work

Natalie Gill, programme director, Timewise

Flexible working recruitment agency Timewise has partnered with John Lewis and Tesco, as well as the British Retail Consortium, on an initiative helping part-time workers develop their careers.

One of the biggest barriers to more flexible working is misunderstanding about what the term means – flexibility means very different things to different people. Retailers need to be really clear about what flexible working means for them and their employees.

We partnered with six retailers on the Retail Pioneer Programme. We know that between 50% and 70% of people working on the shop floor are working part-time, often because of the flexibility it offers. However, they struggle to progress into assistant manager or store manager roles, because those roles are still being designed as full time. It can be difficult for people who want to work flexibly to progress. We looked at what the barriers were and helped retailers redesign assistant manager, store manager and even area manager roles.

The solution differs for each retailer, depending on how their teams are structured and how big stores are. Essentially, it is thinking about how we can split responsibility – whether that’s a job-share or looking at whether work can be moved up or down to more senior or junior positions. Retailers can really look at which work needs to be done and by whom. By thinking about how roles can be done differently, retailers can create more opportunities for flexible workers.

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