OPINION11 June 2018

Is it time for market research to embrace flexibility?

Europe Opinion People Trends UK

Flexible working is still the exception rather than the rule, but it could be the key to helping the industry retain talent and bring the best of the broader world into what researchers do, says Sinead Jefferies. 

Flexible working_crop

For years, we’ve been talking about a massive shift coming in the way we work. With technological advances, the ability to be more flexible has always been on the horizon. Now that day is here, and there is a growing movement to champion the flexible working cause.

But how much is the insight and research industry embracing the zeitgeist? It feels like we’re lagging some way behind, not only in how much we are enabling and championing flexible working, but also even having it on our agenda – although that is slowly starting to change. 

I approach this from the perspective of someone who has spent the last three years pushing the boundaries of flexible working. I work for a London-based agency, but live in France, working from home three-four days a week and travelling to London around once a month. This flexibility gives me more time and space to bring great quality thinking to what I do, and not having a back-to-back timetable of meetings gives me the agility to pick things up at short notice. But having spoken to many people around the industry, it still seems flexible working options are the exception rather than the rule.

One freelancer I spoke to left a big agency specifically because her requests for flexibility weren’t being met. Any time she was ‘given permission’ to work from home, it was viewed as an exception and a favour. She wants to be an agency person and loves being part of a team, but freelancing allows her to work in a more dynamic way.

Freelancing works very well for some, however, there are some people working freelance simply because they don’t feel there is any other way to get the flexibility they’re looking for. It’s a bigger risk, with more uncertainty, but it’s a risk some are prepared to take. Dan Young of Shed Research, who does a combination of working from home and from a collective office, bringing in other people to support projects as needed, says: “I’ve had to spent quite a lot of time creating the job and getting the ways of working right. For me, it’s about flexible models, not just flexible hours.”

But it doesn’t feel right that flexibility can only be found by taking the freelance route. Flexible working consultancy Timewise has recently published a new 'Manifesto for Change' in collaboration with Deloitte. The five-point action plan highlights the practical solutions needed to transform outdated working practices that can exacerbate gender imbalance across UK businesses: 

  • Leaders must provoke cultural change: challenge the status quo
  • Flexible working should be gender neutral: emphasise the value of male and female role models
  • Design flexibility into jobs as standard: ask ‘why not’ rather than ‘why'
  • Influence the attitudes and actions of managers: provide them with permission and support
  • Collect the data: measure the success of flexible working.

Some forward-thinking agencies are already setting the standards for this. Join the Dots’ Ellie Osbourne says the company allowed her to re-enter the agency world having found that although freelancing gave her the flexibility she was looking for, it didn’t give her the same career satisfaction. “They are totally supportive of remote working to support them getting the best talent in their team,” she says. “The culture is phenomenal, and they get so much back in return”.

At Trinity McQueen, one in five of the team have some form of flexible working arrangement. According to research director and team head Roseann Smith, the culture and support for flexible working comes from the top. “Anna [Cliffe, joint MD] has really championed a more flexible approach and the team leaders cascade this down. From the interview stage, it was clear how supportive the business was – they wanted my experience, and so were happy to make it work. With senior people working in this way, it’s really opened up the opportunities to other people as well.”

Roseann job-shares the team head element of her role, and although this is far from a common solution within the industry, those who are doing it find it works brilliantly. Katherine Lawson, senior research manager at Royal Mail, has been working as part of a job share since returning from her second maternity leave. “We had lots of applications to be my job share partner and interviewed 10 very good people with a range of reasons for wanting the flexibility.”

It’s clear there are some great examples out there, but what’s next for flexible working and market research? As we strive to become a more diverse industry, flexibility must be one of the enablers. It’s not just working mums returning from maternity leave wanting to work part-time, it’s about people wanting space for additional study, older workers wanting to achieve a better work/life balance allowing them to work for longer, or people who want to live a more global life and be able work from a different country every once in a while. 

There is clearly a need for change, as many companies aren’t yet embracing flexibility, according to Sinead Hasson, who has worked in research and insight recruitment for over 20 years. “Some employers just won’t consider it at all and have a blanket ‘we don’t do that’ approach. There are some companies who are much more open – and they’re the ones people want to work for.”

Trinity McQueen’s Smith points out that it’s not just about being nice. “Having a strong agency talent pool is really important for the industry. You absolutely can be commercial and care about your people – it’s entirely compatible.”

As an industry that thrives on curiosity, ideas, context and cultural understanding, surely all these things can only enhance what we bring to the ‘day job’? If that means working shorter days, from a different location or on a part-time basis, don’t we need to figure out how to make that work in order to nurture and keep our talent, and continue to bring the best of a broader world into what we do?

Sinead Jefferies is a consultant at Chime Insight & Engagement Group