There is nothing more liberating to me than having a day – whether a day of leisure or of work – where I can walk around barefoot. I don’t know if it’s the return to childhood feeling, the undoubted benefits it brings to my posture and my dodgy right knee, or just the knowledge that on days like these I can totally be at ease with myself.
By “being myself” I mean that in general straying too far from my kitchen, my garden or, on holiday, my sun lounger wearing no shoes is impractical. It’s also not what people do “at work”. But wearing footwear all day, every day is just not me.
This week I went to hear a talk by the fabulous Mary Portas – one highly entertaining evening on a tour of theatres she is doing as part of her crusade to “work like a woman”. It was inspiring, emotional and most of all, common sense. I don’t think there was anyone in the overwhelmingly female audience who couldn’t identify with the core message that the world of work has for too long been based on a set of restrictive, disempowering and macho rules which women had no part in shaping. The irony is that this culture now barely works for anyone, male or female, so for all our sakes change is definitely needed. Encouraged by Mary to listen to the accompanying Podcasts, I got to thinking about my bare feet moments. On the Podcasts, Mary and her guests discuss the subject of flexible working – or more accurately creating a flexible culture of work which complements rather than inhibits our lives. Working freelance as an alternative to the restrictive and often risk-averse HR policies of the corporate world is one of the discussions that struck a chord with me.
The message from the Work Like a Woman movement is that every workplace culture can become more enlightened, more forgiving and less driven by a race to the top that leaves too many of us crashing to the bottom if we get – or fall – off the treadmill. The power is with all of us to change it.
In the last 10 years as a freelance/independent consultancy director, the overwhelming culture that I have encountered is the misconception that freelancers are somehow screwing the system. The reality is that, compared to the corporate culture we all grew up in, by focusing on the work that we enjoy, we deliver. We appreciate and understand our clients and adapt and learn quickly. We work the hours needed to get the job done – and it is our choice to work at hours that suit us, our families and our responsibilities. We can – and very often do – work barefoot if that is appropriate. What’s not to like?
What’s not to like is that all too often it is the “system” that is screwing us. Most of the people I know who work freelance do so because of the ability to live the Work Like a Woman way – whether they are men or women. But all too often the event that tipped them into taking the risk to go freelance was a moment of raging against the machine. Even the downsides of being a freelance are better than that rage. Being a freelance means that you initially at least cover every role, often without support, that every organisation needs to do business – HR, finance, legal and contracts, sales, marketing, taxation, pensions, benefits and……the list just goes on. And the system is becoming even more punitive without offering a trade-off of rights and recognition or people who want to work flexibly. The exploitative practices of the gig economy, zero hours contracts and just downright illegal employment need to be tackled. But the unintended consequences of some of the remedies to stamp out exploitation is that the misconceptions about genuine freelancers are increasing. How much better for corporates to recognise the existing prejudices against freelance, flexible, non standard working styles?
So yes, Mary and all of the inspiring, brave and visionary individuals out there, let’s all work more and more like a woman. Let’s start by embracing a mixed economy of working styles, including making proper provision for the freelance, flexible and independent workforce that is walking bare foot into a better world or work.