Flexible Working for Parents: Does it Work?

As managing director of media agency Maxus UK – and a 300-strong workforce – Anna Hickey has made it her mission to implement truly flexible working for parents. We talk gender equality in the workplace and being a woman at the top of her game… 

Anna Hickey lives with her husband and their two boys, aged five and ten, in Hertfordshire.

What is your home like?
My home is over 100 years old, so it is full of character. It’s a converted stable building, so it’s quite unique and quirky – full of nooks and crannies.

What time are you up in the mornings?
Normally I wake up at 6am. I tend to be the first one up in our household – I like to make sure that I am up and showered before the kids wake up.

What wakes you up?
I wake up to my alarm. I am one of those people who gets up as soon as it goes off. I hate the snooze button.

How do you feel?
Usually I feel fine when I wake up. I’m a morning person, so I find it better to just jump out of bed and get on with things.

What do you do first thing?
The first thing I do is jump in the shower. After that I grab a coffee for me and my husband to drink while watching the breakfast news.

How might the rest of your day pan out?
Because I commute into London, I have to make sure that my morning routine is pretty buttoned down. The hour commute is one of the only times I get to myself, so I spend most of that time going through my emails and doing any last minute final prep for meetings I have on that day.

What are your most productive working hours?
Because I spend most of my day in meetings, I have to be able to be pretty consistent all the time. My commuting hours are very productive and I’m very disciplined about using them to the full. This could be to prepare for the day ahead or to take stock as well as to draft notes and contact reports on the way home.

How do you divide your time between kids/work/friends/partner/time alone – have you found a balance?
I think it is very difficult to find a balance. Outside of work my children are definitely my priority. I make a significant effort to offset working time by spending quality time with them and ensuring that I’m not missing out on things that are important in their lives. So for example, I try to make sure that I do the school run at least once a week.

In reality there just isn’t enough time for everything, and unfortunately it is usually friends that suffer. As much as you would like to make time for everyone, you end up having to make slightly selfish choices about your time to make sure that your priorities work for you.

You’re managing director of media agency Maxus, how did you get into this line of work?
I would like to say there was a grand plan to go into the media industry but actually that’s not really the case! Like many people of a certain age who are in media, I fell into it. At the time it wasn’t as well-known a career path as it is now; especially too because a lot of the functions that make up the heart of what a media agency does were still handled in house at creative agencies.

Given the choice now, I would definitely still choose to go into media. New emerging technology is changing the jobs we do every day and has made it one of the most exciting parts of marketing.

Being in charge of a 300-strong workforce must be stressful at times, what helps you to cope when it all gets too much?
I think that it is a mixture of stubbornness and optimism that helps me cope when it gets very busy! You have to be stubborn to not let anything beat you and remain optimistic and see positives in any situation.

As a leader it is important for me to show that I am in control and have everything in hand. Controlling your emotions is, I think, a big part of being a good leader. It is my responsibility to provide a positive example to everyone in the office and make sure that morale is kept high and everyone is happy.

Flexible working at Maxus

You implemented a parental leave package, offering 26 weeks of leave to both mums and dads, with six ‘emergency days’ – to be used when kids are ill/ have a school play. What inspired you to create this package?

The inspiration came from my experience as a working mum as well as working alongside other brilliant working parents.

What I realised was that ultimately what parents need is flexibility; no one should have their parenting structure dictated to them by their work. As long as people deliver their work and achieve what they need to, there is no reason that they should have to follow a certain structure. Flexible working is good for employers, as well as employees.

So we give mums and dads an equal chance to take extended parental leave when their kids are born, and to work in a totally flexible way when they come back. And we give them lots of support to ensure it works for them. One of the most important aspects of the programme for me is the parental buddy scheme; having the reassurance and support from someone who has come back to work after paternity or maternity leave is exceptionally important.

Does flexible working work?

How have parents in your workforce responded; are both mums and dads taking advantage of it?
We have had lots of really positive feedback from mums and dads at Maxus and we have seen great take up of the scheme already.

We have a couple of mums who are expecting their second child who are really excited to plan a totally different pattern of maternity leave for the second time. Some are entertaining the option of sharing leave with their partners, something which wasn’t available the first time round. We’re also keen for dads to take up our shared parental leave offering; since the law came into effect last year we have had four dads take all, or part of, the new parental leave benefit.

As a female in a high-powered job, do you feel aware of your gender when working or is it of no relevance?
Personally I have never felt it has been an issue. I am lucky that I work in an industry where the subject of gender equality has always been discussed.

I am aware though that even now it is still a problem in some Westernised markets. I take it very seriously to be a strong female role model at work and there is still a lot more that needs to be done on the issue of gender equality.

Is society, in general, progressing in terms of gender equality – enough to recognise that both women and men can lead?
I think it is getting there in society but there is still a long way to go. I feel that there is still a need for some positive discrimination. The fact is that there is still a shortage of women in senior positions in the UK.

One thing that I think is very important is for parents to instil knowledge in their children, especially daughters, that women can have just as good as, if not better, careers than men. I am very proud that I set an example to my children about women having strong and successful careers. I think all mums, regardless of their own personal career choices, have that responsibility.

What’s the dream for you, career wise?
My dream is that my career keeps progressing in a positive way, where I am learning every day and working with inspirational and interesting people. And where I can use my position to inspire and create opportunity for others.

And for your personal life?
Like all parents, I want my children to be happy and succeed in anything that they choose to do.

What do you think about flexible working? We’re interested to hear from both employers and employees… Let us know in the comment section below.