So there was a discussion on DWG’s internal Yammer board about the rise of flexible working on the Guardian: Banks and financial firms dominate list of most flexible employers. This was all good news inside DWG/IBF as a) many of the companies listed were members or former members, b) We love flexible working and the digital workplace and c) Many of us have chosen the freelancing lifestyle so that we can work flexibly to ease the care of our families. Others of course just do it for the money, the chicks or to be able to live in remote areas.
Front and centre of the Guardian article was a stock photo that is becoming a sort of race memory. I have seen its type many times before:
Between lazy journalism, incredibly lazy photo-editing and hackneyed stock photography, we have the narrative told again. Whatever the realities of flexible working, the photo always attempts to mash children, parenthood and work into a single image. Above we have a toddler playing with a desk phone while we assume Dad is in the background wearing a tie. If he’s working from home, why the hell is he in a tie. If he’s got work to-do after hours why isn’t he getting it done quickly and effectively upstairs in the study in an ergonomically approved chair so he can then be truly present for his family. If both Mum and Dad are working from home why the hell isn’t the child in child-care.
Of course we know that having a kid around the shop when you are trying to work is pretty much a non-starter. My wife who shares our home-office 1.5 days per week was even asked explicitly by her employer what our childcare arrangements would be. This is the reality of doing this well. We know that, the Guardian journo know that too. But the picture plays on some weird ghost of a thought.
Let’s review the evidence and look at some other examples.
Here we are again, with twins this time. A sippy-cup is in the foreground. I’ve tried having our kids on my knee at the computer. Guess what? They try and bash the keyboard and are generally irritating and kill productivity and professionalism. They kill it dead:
But don’t they grow fast? Here’s another example from the Graun and the cutie-pie is now talking back. This wouldn’t work in our house because number one son would be issuing a lecture on the relative merits of Star Wars characters in Lego form. Incessantly. For hours. When I work around and abouts the place in noisy locations I usually wear headphones, but I think he would take umbrage if I tried it at home. Remember this article is about benefits packages, not how to avoid discussions about Star Wars Lego:
It’s not just the mums of course, let’s hear it for the dads. This article is about employers being reluctant to offer working from home. Well so would I if I thought you had a three month old either asleep or puking on your shoulder:
Another one with the baby present, but this time Dad’s got it covered. He clearly got in early with the Medised. The Telegraph gets in on the act:
Is teleworking driving us crazy? Well you shouldn’t be allowed a laptop computer if you put it, yourself in a suit, a baby and a bowl of cereal together. The BBC fares a little better in general but their Thinkstock licence is used to egregious effect here:
Again I wonder why employers worry about ergonomics and employees working in inappropriate situations when they allow working from home:
OK, finally no children present, but there are toys in the background, we are suddenly in the garden and posture is shot to shit again:
The photographer here wasn’t able procure a child model for the shoot so picked up some toys at the pound shop. This is more realistic, but if my life is anything to go by, the background would be far more untidy than this (and about 35% Lego):
Let’s get out of the domestic environment entirely, and lets go to the beach. No, actually lets talk about the legal right to have access to flexible working. But here’s a picture of mum and toddler at the beach. SLACKERS!
Finally in the parenthood section featuring a Motorola brick from 1995, we see Mum has in fact taken the kids and the laptop to the beach. Hang on, those kids are probably in the workforce now.
So if you have got this far, and you are not yet a parent let’s look at some stock that has been used when just talking about working from home, because you know maybe, it isn’t just a practice used to ease parenthood. Here’s a Guardian Olympic story. I could hold this pose and smile for about 58 seconds before the bad-back/ hot knee/ rictus grin combo became fatal:
And if you have decided that children are not for you and pets will satisfy that need for companionship and love, without the need for childcare, or university fees, here’s an example for the dog lovers. Note that she’s in the KITCHEN in a rubbish chair, surrounded by dishcloths. Presumably she won’t be able to start the day until 9:15 because of a heavy washing-up workload and she’ll need to walk the dog three times:
So what have we learned about flexible working and journalism. These are the visions of people who don’t share the actual lifestyle that flexible working is trying to maintain. The photographers are trying to earn a crust and they can earn it by slamming a few concepts together with some strobes and a wide-angle lens. They get used by lazy picture editors who are trying to make stories more engaging.
These fictions get me riled because they play on the childish fears of managers and co-workers who believe that flexible working and working from home are somehow threatening. In general what is going on in these pictures is the opposite of what the articles were about – the media appears to be broadly behind flexible working and the digital workplace. In reality working with a baby on one’s knee just doesn’t happen to any degree that I’m aware of. Children are at school, nursery or with a child-minder. We have the opportunity to radically change our relationship with work using technology and dramatically improve our quality of life by reducing commuting time. That is the time that goes to our children (or dogs) instead. Not every article I came across in 30 minutes looking followed this pictorial formula, but none had a picture of a rubbish meeting, or a bored commuter.
That though is only the first step towards organisations not really needing to give a fig about where we are, and leaving the choice to us: because we are adults, and adults that they trust to run and maintain their businesses. It is so easy for large corporates to fence in flexible working as just-a-parent thing, and these pictures subtly and implicitly perpetuate this tired narrative.