Working Parents   //   March 25, 2024

‘Make it work for you’: Which flexible business cultures are reaping profits and retaining talent

This article is part of a series examining the various ways that the overhaul of organizations’ working models around the world, triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, is affecting working parents with desk-based jobs, and how their relationships between their kids and jobs have changed since the pandemic years. More from the series →

Work-life balance isn’t about creating a soft business culture that gives everyone warm and fuzzies. Many believe it’s a commercial imperative. And there’s no clearer demonstration of that than at BBC Studios — the commercial arm of the BBC Group, based in London.

Jasmine Dawson, svp of digital at BBC Studios, is a mother of two children (ages 2 and 7) and has made it her mission to embed flexible working into her teams, which comprise 130 people — working parents and nonparents alike. She claims that this structure and transparency among workers has led to a direct rise in morale and business outcomes. 

The BBC has no strict RTO mandate, favoring flexibility and allowing employees to come into the office on a schedule that works for them personally. “That attitude [from the BBC Studios CEO] of ‘make it work for you’ has massively impacted both myself and the team,” said Dawson. “Some days I will be in four days a week and some days I won’t be in at all.” I truly have no idea how I would have made it work with two children, without this flexibility.” 

Dawson is svp of global digital strategy, responsible for driving audience and bottom-line growth for BBC Studios’ digital brands, including BBC Earth, Doctor Who, Top Gear, and kids’ show hits like Bluey and Hey Duggee. She claims that the arm has smashed its commercial targets, at a time when the market has been “extremely challenged”, as a direct result of its culture of flexibility. 

“I absolutely put that down to the fact that we are very, very focused on making sure that people are authentically themselves. They are balanced and they are communicating,” she said. 

BBC Studios made sales revenue of £2.1 billion ($2.7 billion) — of which £240 million ($306 million) was profits in 2022 to 2023. And the business has ambitious plans to double that by 2027/28. While Dawson wasn’t able to disclose an exact revenue uplift figure for the last year, she said that the commercial gains seen were a direct result of the internal cultural changes within the department that have gradually been implemented since the pandemic. And this year BBC Studios Social expects to exceed its eight-figure revenue target. “In a year where on average our competitors are down 20-30% we are up nearly 10% and have seen 75% YOY growth,” she added.

It’s been four years since the pandemic overturned working norms upheld since the 1920s. And while an increasing number of companies are pushing strict five-day RTO mandates, many are still championing flexibility and reaping the benefits in terms of staff loyalty and retention, and commercial profits. And yet the RTO rhetoric touted by more business leaders is causing some professionals to feel anxious that the inroads that have been made in the last few years, toward flexible working options that parents can benefit from, will be eroded as we return to a more pre-pandemic status quo.

Dawson is adamant that people need to remain honest and transparent with each other about what ways of working suit them best, whether parent or nonparent. The coronavirus pandemic ignited a kind of “forced exposure” into the lives of clients and coworkers when the desk-based working world had to rely on video calls to connect and do their jobs. That means that people got a raw inside look at what personal challenges their coworkers were up against. For parents, it could be a particularly chaotic scene. “That was as tragic as it was hilarious at times, but everyone sort of went through it together,” said Dawson.

Now the darkest days of Covid-19 have passed, and workforces are straddling working remotely and being in the office, there is a need for that deeper understanding of colleagues’ external responsibilities to be kept alive, she believes.

“I make sure that it goes from me all the way through my team – making sure that everyone understands what flexibility means for them. It doesn't take just me saying it, it has to be lived and embodied…through everybody.”
Jasmine Dawson, svp, BBC Studios.

“That forced exposure that the pandemic brought, needs to happen through communication now,” said Dawson. “Having those really raw, honest conversations with people — not just parents — is incredibly important. Because that forced exposure helps them to understand and also be really clear, as a company, how these things work.” That means that everyone understands, if they see parents seemingly clock off early — it doesn’t mean they’re not pulling their weight. It means they’ll be working flexibly to deliver the same outcomes but around school pickups and bedtime routines. Or it could be that they’re working compressed hours.

“I’m in a privileged position where parenthood is understood from the top down. I make sure that it goes from me all the way through my team — making sure that everyone understands what flexibility means for them. It doesn’t take just me saying it, it has to be lived and embodied by everyone and all through my VPs, directors, managers, coordinators — it has to be lived through everybody,” added Dawson.

Fostering understanding, not resentment

Having a culture that fully embraces being flexible means ensuring non-parents are supported and understand what different types of flexible working are available, so they don’t feel like they’ll be left with more work, when a colleague leaves at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. for instance, to do a school pickup.

While many organizations are family-friendly, it’s far from universal.

WorkLife spoke to three working moms who all look back with regret, at how they treated other mothers on their teams. C. Quinn Smith, senior director of product management at jobs board Indeed in the U.S., is a mother of two kids under the age of five years old. She had her first daughter at 38 years old and was a manager for many years before that. “I am so sorry to all the moms or parents that I managed prior to understanding,” she said. “I always felt like I was flexible and understanding, but I didn’t get like, how many hours in a day you could be working before getting to work, or what saying, ‘I had a sick kid up all night’ actually meant. I intellectually understood — I’d say, ‘sure take all the time you need,’ but now I understand it on a whole new emotional level,” she said.

Quinn had some particular challenges scheduling work around when she had to feed her firstborn. Breastfeeding is quite a heavy-duty and time-consuming task for mothers, and it’s not always a choice. Quinn’s daughter refused formula and would also only feed at night — a habit in newborns called “reverse cycling.” This meant that Quinn had to schedule her pump times meticulously — putting on her calendar that she needed certain half-hour windows to pump milk. “I have pictures of myself like just having absolutely destroyed a shirt, just having leaked everywhere,” she said.

“I am so sorry to all the moms or parents that I managed prior to understanding.”
C. Quinn Smith, senior director of product management, Indeed.

Despite labeling on her calendar very clearly what that time was blocked for, one particular coworker kept scheduling meetings with her over it. She had to resort to pumping during a video (with the camera off) call with a colleague who kept setting meetings over this time. “His attitude was that it was my problem — until I made it his,” she said.

Stephanie Bennett, a single working mom we spoke to for this series, admitted she used to resent other working moms she witnessed leaving early and starting late throughout her career before she had her daughter in 2021. “I was an eye roller, I was the one going — right I guess I’ll pick that [extra work] up then, thanks. You go home and do your thing,” she said. “Now I’m on the other side, I’m like God — I was awful, I can’t believe I was doing that.”

Now Bennett, who has her own podcast For the Love of Kids, is a member of Bloom U.K., a professional network of women in communications set up to support women at all stages in their careers. “I’m keen to find ways to challenge the system and make people a bit more respectful of what it means to be a parent and the extra duties and responsibilities and time it takes, rather than getting the, ‘well you signed up for that, attitude,” she said.

Flexibility is as much for dads as it is moms

Rob Bradley is a dad to two children under the age of 4 years old and enjoys the balance of the hybrid setup in his role at Warner Bros. Discovery, where he is svp of digital strategy and operations for international at CNN International Commercial and key sports assets. He works Tuesday to Thursday in the office and tries to plan all his meetings which have London-based team members, for those days.

This flexible setup has proved invaluable to him, and has meant his wife has also been able to maintain her job as a tech engineer. “The hybrid working allows me to do the nursery drop-offs and pickups on Mondays and Fridays and the flexibility that work-life balance has enabled is so valuable, as well as being able to bond with them in their formative years.”

He emphasized the importance of being able to share the parental load more equally with his partner, thanks to hybrid working. Naturally, it’s not all rainbows — there’s no cure yet for sleep deprivation if a child has been up all night. But being around more to share some of those more challenging moments makes a difference, as his partner works from home five days a week outside of her current maternity leave. 

“I think with some of the wonderful but sometimes stressful moments of having kids, part of the positive of having a hybrid workplace and being around in those days is that it eases that pressure on your relationship as well if it’s a case that your partner is working from home or like mine at the moment is on maternity leave,” he said.

Especially given how much his family has changed in the last four years — Bradley had both parents pass away during the peak years of Covid-19, and took over the financial responsibility and care for a member of his close family who suffers from an illness. Working for a company that allows employees to be flexible around external needs, whether it be related to health issues of family members or day-to-day parental and carer responsibilities is not just important for employee well-being, but a huge talent retainer. “It’s a huge draw for me personally, and the teams,” added Bradley. 

Men’s relationships with their children have benefitted from the rise in remote working after the pandemic. Three in four men said that remote working had improved their relationships with their kids, according to a Deloitte report published last August.

Paul Rayment is PR manager at sports media group Footballco and producer of the Footballco Business Podcast, he works Mondays and Thursdays in the office and the rest of the week from home, so he can do school drop-offs and pickups for his 5-year-old daughter. His wife is the CEO of a nonprofit and is in the office most days, except Mondays. “That arrangement has meant I’ve been able to maintain a close bond with my daughter and be available more,” he said. “I honestly don’t know how we did it before.”

RTO should be a diversity, equity and inclusion issue 

Part of the issue for blunt RTO measures is that many organizations — from financial services and beyond — are having conversations around DE&I and specifically the advancement and retention of women, separately from their conversations around flexible work and RTO mandates, stressed Neda Shemluck, managing director, and U.S. financial services industry DEI leader, Deloitte Consulting. “The reality is these are very tightly linked concepts,” she said. 

And it’s not just working parents who will suffer from rigid thinking, it’s all caregivers. The majority (85%) of financial services managers and senior leaders share primary or shared caregiving responsibilities, according to a report from Deloitte published earlier this month. 

“The pandemic, in many respects, showed women and caregivers more broadly, what this combination of work and life could look like and many organizations were seeing the same business performance and results that they were seeing in a nonremote environment,” said Shemluck. While she stressed that there is widespread recognition that employees connecting for training, networking, and other communal tasks are performed better in person, there is no proof to show that it leads to higher profits.

“What we’re seeing from a lot of financial services organizations and organizations more broadly is more rigid policies around a return without necessarily articulating the cost-benefit of that return,” she said. “For caregivers, the opportunity to have a flexible work arrangement — and again that doesn’t mean you’re not coming into the office, it means you have flexibility and some level of autonomy as to when and how frequently we’re coming into the office — that’s critical, particularly as we look at how to drive greater advancement of women, how do we accelerate gender parity.”

Victoria Usher, CEO of London-based PR firm GingerMay, is mom to two daughters (ages 11 and 17). But for her, the memory of what she was forced to do as a new, working mother, still haunts her. “When I was made to go back to work, I remember standing in a children’s clothing store, deranged with guilt and grief at leaving my three-week-old daughter at home with my mum, touching the baby grows and sobbing,” she said. “I was being forced away from the most important job in the world to work so I could pay my mortgage. We would have lost our house if I lost my job. And my boss knew it — and didn’t care.”

On another occasion, she had to do a feed, then hand off her baby to the HR director, who walked her around the block while Usher did a pitch for a global CEO.

It’s what inspired Usher to set up Ginger May PR, which gives complete flexibility to all working parents. That means there is a core-hours model where senior directors (who are parents) are often in the office from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for instance, so they can be available for younger workers and clients, and then can leave to deal with afternoon pickups or other duties and work remotely. It’s a structure and culture in which all parents and non-parents support each other, she added. “There’s an understanding that people can take time, they can come back [and] they’re judged on their outputs,” she added.

But the kind of treatment Usher received as a new mother, may not be quite so overt now, but there is still woefully inadequate support for new mothers with decent maternity and paternity leave still not table stakes within organizations. A total 24% of women leave the workforce within the first year after their first child’s birth, as a result of what’s now widely referred to as the “motherhood penalty,” Deloitte’s report highlighted.

“I am a mom to three boys and I would say after my first had it not been for the fact that I had an incredible boss who gave me the autonomy and flexibility who gave me the trust, I certainly would have been one of those statistics,” said Shemluck.