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Women – the greatest untapped workforce on the planet

Dominic Irvine
overseas

I believe there is a rolling population of somewhere around 2 to 2.5 million people who remain an untapped treasure trove of talent, ability and value. Who are they? New parents. Each year there are roughly 600,000 children born in the UK. Contributor Dominic Irvine, Founder – Epiphanies.

For the first couple of years of a child’s life, parents take maternity and paternity leave, whilst some would like to work but the conditions of employment do not suit, and others want to focus purely on parenting. Constrained by the way we perceive work, too many organisations deny themselves access to this incredibly valuable resource.

In fact, rather than them being seen as a valuable resource, as a recent radio phone-in programme demonstrated, some employers still see the rights of parents as a problem. That this should be seen in this way is quite ludicrous. You would have thought that given our existence on the planet depended on women giving birth, seeing this as anything other than normal is incomprehensible. Yet, just a few days ago I heard a small business owner (let’s call him “John from Bellbury”) complain to the DJ of the radio show that the cost to a small business of supporting repeated departures for maternity leave is unsustainable. What nonsense, what crass stupidity, what perverse logic. We need to create a society-wide shift in thinking from seeing maternity or paternity leave as something that has to be managed into the hidden opportunity that it is. More broadly, we need to get over the sense that employment means physically being in an office with lots of others. ‘Always on, anywhere’ technology means we can be anywhere and still be accessible. It’s just as easy to join a video call, as it is to make a phone call. Documents can be shared online, in real time.

The arrival of a new member of the family brings with it significant change, as does caring for an elderly relative, as does coping with the impact of a major illness. Sometimes the experience is all consuming and the notion of coping with anything other than the immediate demands is impossible. Over time, as patterns of activity begin to emerge, small pockets of time become free, and these may increase over time. They don’t have to be used for work, but there is no reason why they could not be used for work, if the person felt so inclined. We already know from the world of consultancy that work can be packaged up, priced and delivered without too much difficulty.

If we can parcel up small bundles of work that match the time that stay-at-home workers have available, everyone can benefit in so many ways. Firstly, the individual does not feel left behind with everything that is going on at work; they can keep up to speed and in contact with colleagues. This makes returning to work smoother and easier when the time is right – because they never left it! Secondly, the employer can maintain the level of knowledge and experience the parent has and reduce the need to have to train others. Thirdly, the amount of work that can be done can increase in a way that is commensurate with the personal circumstances of each individual.  Finally, it is a way of driving extra income into households where there could well be a real need.

Concerns arising from increased mobility of the workforce often focus on a brain drain of the best talent leaving our shores to work elsewhere, whilst at the same time ignoring the thousands of brains that are at home not working because the way we think about them as employees is too constrained and too limited.

Cynics may argue that there is no way of ensuring they are working when they say they will be – but that’s a specious argument. The whole point is it doesn’t matter when they do work, whether that’s at 3am because the baby is awake and so too are they, or at 10am because the baby is fast asleep, or the person for whom they care is comfortable and sorted for the next few hours, and they have some time to make a mug of coffee and do some thinking. The key is not to focus on the inputs but on the outputs that need to be delivered and in providing a technology solution that makes working collaboratively from home possible. Some could also argue that certain jobs cannot be done this way. That is true, but surprisingly few. Most skillsets are transferable to other activities, so give the individual work they can do rather than focusing on what they cannot. This style of working is likely to be the future in any event. We are moving to an economy of specialists. Organisations bring in the right specialists for the period required and not more. This type of work is suited to stay-at-home workers.

And so “John from Bellbury” how about you stop complaining and instead embrace the opportunity that’s there and go and find yourself some amazing people to work with and, instead of complaining about the cost of hiring potential parents, celebrate parenthood and the value it could bring to your business.