Justine Roberts is an inspiring example of a woman entrepreneur. She started Mumsnet – the UKs most popular website for parents - after becoming the mother of twins. We spoke ahead of covid. It’s ironic, eerie, whatever you want to call it. We talked about the difficulties of working remotely with kids at home, and the burden of childcare on women’s careers. Little did we know all of this would become exponentially true in just a few weeks with the lockdowns. Empathy, understanding – these are key ingredients to a sustainable workforce. Covid 19 is yet another reminder we need to protect women’s positions in the workplace by enabling their career longevity and growth. Companies like Mumsnet and Roleshare - the jobshare matching site bringing part-time workers together for full-time roles - help to do that. Photo credit: Emilie Fjola Sandy.
Sophie Smallwood: Justine Roberts is an inspiring example of a woman entrepreneur. She started Mumsnet, the Uk's most popular website for parents, after becoming the mother of twins. We spoke ahead of Covid-19. It's ironic, eerie, whatever you want to call it, but we talked about the difficulties of working remotely with kids at home and the burden of childcare on women's careers. Little did we know, all of this would become exponentially true in just a few weeks with the lockdowns. Here's Justine to talk about solutions for then and ever more so now.
Justine Roberts: When Mumsnet started, it was way back when everyone was having an idea for their web startup. I had previously been working in football and cricket journalism and before that in the city as an investment banker. And I had one-year-old twins and I very much wanted to find, what I thought would be a more family-friendly career. And I came to the conclusion that I needed to set the parameters, be in charge, to allow that to happen, to be able to put my family first and work second, as opposed to what I'd seen in previous roles where women, in particular, had to pretend their family didn't exist in order to get on career wise. So that was a large part of the driving force and also just real excitement about what the Internet offered in terms of being able to connect and tap into the wisdom of others.
Sophie Smallwood: I love that, and I can empathize, I think there's something interesting around wanting more balance with your family and then also starting your own business, because anyone who's starting a business knows that it's grueling and it's a lot of work.
Justine Roberts: Yes.
Sophie Smallwood: I can imagine having twins and then also starting Mumsnet back in the day must have been really difficult.
Justine Roberts: Certainly, it's true that I probably worked longer hours in this job than I ever did in any of the others. But it's the flexibility to be able to do the important things and put the important things first. The mantra we have at Mumsnet is, no one ever has to miss the school assembly unless you want to or the sports day or anything else. And if your child is sick, then fine work from home. Clearly, you need to be there. And you don't have that sort of overriding anxiety about, what if it all falls apart and I'm going to let people down because we say very clearly, if your child is sick, that's not a problem. If you are at home and catch up later in the evening or something like that, we will be understanding because we are parents and we understand. And that's what it is. It's not really about time. It's about understanding.
Sophie Smallwood: So you find a solution for yourself to, in essence, try to solve the notion of full-time, work-life balance. This was a great arrangement for you and obviously, your mission extends beyond just your own desire, but you wanted this same thing for other mothers. Was there any point in the journey where you felt that it worked and in other parts where it didn't?
Justine Roberts: Yeah, I think anyone who starts their own venture realizes that one of the problems is, you're never done, that you cannot clock off or you clock off knowing that there are a million other things you could do.
Sophie Smallwood: Right.
Justine Roberts: So it's quite relentless in that sense because there was an opportunity and it's really about how fast you go really. Basically, we couldn't raise any money and the business model was, well, there wasn't really one for the first six years. I worked from home and that had a whole load of complications with young children because I actually think it's almost better if you leave the home rather than be in the home. But the message to the young children being that you don't want to be with them. So I remember vividly giving an interview to Radio five, live with my children, banging on the other side of the door. And me holding the door shut, trying to talk sense to the man at the end of the line. So, I think there were plenty of times where I thought this is very tricky. I have to say the arrival of the smartphones has made it a lot easier to fit in work and be productive around your life because you never have to have a moment where you're unproductive. That in itself brings challenges about turning off occasionally. But it has made this whole idea of being able to work where you want, when you want. Technology is really helpful, I think.
Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely. Yeah. That is so true. And I'm getting a really good visual of you holding the door while trying to have an interview with your kids banging on the door. I find it really hard to get work done when I'm working from home and my son is sick. So, yeah, do you want that space?
Justine Roberts: Yeah. I think what we say at Mumsnet is, if you can't work, you can't work. But your son comes first.
Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely.
Justine Roberts: We know if we give you that kind of flexibility and consideration, then you will catch up. You'll do it when you can do it. And that's good enough for women in particular who tend to still take the burden of caring for their children when they're sick. They're the ones who take the days off. Really, really value that because it takes away a massive guilt and pressure and stress that I think is unnecessary because people do catch up, they do give you flexibility in return. And we still have too much of an hours culture that you have to work within these hours and be present.
Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely. Empathy goes a long way from a company's perspective toward employees. So let me ask you, what is your vision of workforce diversity and leadership, say, in the next five years?
Justine Roberts: Well, I think what we want to do is, re-imagine a future where people are judged on outcomes rather than on how and where they're doing their work as far as possible. That people are able to keep their seniority and work in a part-time way, so you were able to have more work-life balance, but not lose. Not for that to be seen as, Ok well you're clearly not of much use to the organization anymore. I think that's the answer to more diversity, certainly, the gender perspective, because I think very often it's the women picking up the caring responsibility and may voluntarily say, I'm going to eschew seniority because I can't cope with all that sharing responsibility, and the guilt of not being available from an hours basis as much as work wants me to, or traditionally is wanting me to. So for me, it's about being able to work where you want, for how long you want and your contribution being valued rather than actually how many hours, or where you are when you do your work. So an outcomes-based model, I think, rather than the time-based model.
Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely. And we interviewed a number of individuals who've worked in different flexible working models. So some did the four-day compressed workweek, others have done part-time in a role that was built to be part-time and then moved on to shared roles for example. And it's interesting because the experience is quite different, individuals who had a compressed workweek oftentimes would say that there's a lot of pressure and actually the compressed workweek didn't really work out for them because on that day they weren't there. They still had to work. Individuals who were doing a job that was a part-time role that was built to be part-time felt that there was perhaps a regression in their career and the strategic sort of impact of the role. And then some explored shared roles after that. So I know this is an area you and I connected on before and you like the concept of job sharing. And I'd love to sort of pick your brain a bit more around that and perhaps why. But give me the first word that pops to mind when you hear the concept, job sharing.
Justine Roberts: I think for me it's about seniority. I think the great thing about job share is it allows people to keep their seniority. Very often when they go part-time, they lose influence and seniority.
Sophie Smallwood: Right.
Justine Roberts: But also, you get two heads for the price of one.
Sophie Smallwood: Right? Sort of.
Justine Roberts: Yes. Kind of. So stability is the other thing. All the knowledge that comes from a role, all the contacts, all the experience, you've still got it if, A, someone leaves or B, someone is ill, you've got two brains inputting. So I think it's massively more. You get more, the sum of the parts is more than the actual role itself.
Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely. Now, job sharing has been around for it feels like ages and some industries have embraced it a lot more like education, government, the medical industries and such. But there are still a lot of people in the private sector who have never heard of it. I come across individuals all the time who are like, what is this? So why do you think that is? Why is it that this is still kind of an obscure working model?
Justine Roberts: I think it requires changes. It requires a change in attitude. I think a lot of people view it as potentially complicated because it's about a relationship. And the success of role shares, for me, depends on the success of the relationship between the people role sharing. And I think that probably worries people, like any relationship. What happens if it goes wrong or it doesn't work and you get stuck in the middle of that personal conflict? But like any relationship, I think the parameters you set and the way you structure it and the way you set it up, you can set it up to succeed, not to fail. And there are a lot of attendant benefits from it. So I think it's worth it. There's also, I think, a bad mindset around the client always having to reach the same person and that is just about putting in effort to educate the customer all the time to also appreciate that they might get a better service or more ideas or more creativity from two heads rather than one.
Sophie Smallwood: Right. Absolutely. That's spot on. And the other thing I found interesting was that if you look at the Fortune 100 top companies, about 40 percent of them, just a little bit shy of 40 percent of them, offer job sharing as a perk. But it's interesting because when you look across industries, the adoption in companies, when they do offer it, it's only about one to three percent. So even when a company offers it and it's something that's available to employees, adoption is low. Do you think that comes down to the relationship or do you think there's other factors perhaps?
Justine Roberts: I think there's still a feeling that if you're not working full time, you're not fully committed. The company is still reliant on this hours-based presenting as a model as opposed to what's the output here? I've had several people do job shares in my organization and I know that the output is improved. The problem is most organizations don't measure output. I just think culturally it's downgraded. So to people, they think, perhaps I shouldn't do that because I won't be valued as much or I won't succeed as quickly or I won't be promoted and people will just think I'm a shirker because I want to spend more time doing other things.
Sophie Smallwood: Right. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about that because this is one of the things that we'd love to hear more of these productivity, these output stories. So you said you had a number of individuals share roles within your organization. That's great, love to hear that. Why do you say, you know, that there was more output from the pair?
Justine Roberts: For starters, this is probably my main point, you get to keep great people who otherwise would leave. Now we all know about the gender pay gap, but the truth about the gender pay gap is there isn't one until women start having children. At that stage, women start scaling back what they do because of this other pressure that they take on. And I wish it wasn't so, but it is the case that women take on the pressure more than men, it's based on facts. So what you are then losing is all that experience, all that creativity, all that training. You're losing those people from roles if you insist on doing them full time and in the same way. So the main thing I think that is the main benefit and why I know that the outcomes better is because instead of going out and having to recruit someone new, who doesn't understand the business and doesn't have all that experience. I get to keep two people who really do understand the business, who understand the culture and who are very, very committed and grateful for you allowing them to keep their seniority, but for them to work in a way that works for their family life too. And absolutely put in the extra mile and you get the benefits of the employees who really have a job they love, as opposed to one where they are feeling oppressed and stressed the whole time.
Sophie Smallwood: Right. And you say this concept of retention, which I think is one of the great benefits of offering flexible working, including the working model job share. But I think there's also perhaps another benefit, which is attraction. Right. If you think about today when a role is posted and you're looking for, and I'll say full-time coverage, usually it'll be posted for a single applicant. Right. So imagine the people who are applying for those roles are all great, qualified, the talent pool that is mostly available today.
Justine Roberts: Yeah.
Sophie Smallwood: But you're missing out potentially, right, as a company. I'm not saying Mumsnet, but companies are potentially missing out. And if they were to perhaps consider a pair, they might open up the talent pool and have incredible professionals join the organization that perhaps would never apply for that role otherwise.
Justine Roberts: Absolutely. I think it's dawned on me when I realize that very often we were advertising full-time roles when it came to, you'd kind of chosen your candidate, your preferred candidate, and you make your offer. And that person then says, would you mind if I stop at 2.30 on a Wednesday or work from home on Friday? And your answer is always yes. Once you've found that person you are committed to them. Of course, you're going to be flexible because you really want them. But how many people have you put off by not saying that in the advert, by not saying that you'll consider role share. Because lots of people will be scared off because they think, 'oh, I can't apply for this job and start making demands'.
Sophie Smallwood: Right.
Justine Roberts: So actually, if you're going to do it anyway for your preferred candidate, then why not increase the people who are going to apply and perhaps get a better quality of candidates?
Sophie Smallwood: So what advice would you offer individuals who would like to request flexible working in a senior role?
Justine Roberts: Wearing my employer's hat? The thing that always is persuasive is when someone comes with a solution rather than a problem. So they don't say, 'I'd like to work part-time, you work it out', they say, 'I'd like to work in this way, and here's how it's going to work really well for the organization. Here's how it's not going to be disruptive because here's the plan I've got to make it work'. So I think it is about that. It's understanding the needs of the business and coming with a solution that works for everyone.
Sophie Smallwood: I love it. I want to start screaming hallelujah from the top of my roof here. This is so important. It's so critical to come with a solution. And what I like to call it, the what's in it for them. Right. Ultimately, what's in it for the company? It's a sales pitch, in essence. What about the other side of the coin, which is the hiring managers, the H.R. folks who are looking to, in essence, meet the diversity criteria of the organization and in charge of hiring and promoting? What kind of advice would you give to them in one, retaining talent that perhaps might be lost because of flexible working requirements and or talent that might otherwise be completely overlooked because of their outside endeavors and commitments.
Justine Roberts: My experience is that H.R. professionals really get this. The problem is the culture of the hiring managers and their slightly fixed positions about what the role is and how it can be done. And I think that is, again, about putting the business case. It's about presenting, here's why it will be of benefit to the organization to have more diversity. Here are the things we need to get more diversity. It's making the business case for it as opposed to this is going to be a pain in the ass for you and your department. But we want you to do it anyway.
Sophie Smallwood: Right. Yeah, absolutely. So what would you say to companies that have never tried job sharing before to encourage them to look into it and perhaps give it a go?
Justine Roberts: Well, what I'd say is it's been great for us. And it's all about keeping senior people in your organization. It's all about avoiding that sort of inevitable outcome when, women in particular, drop out because they can't cope and making sure that they keep that talent. And then look at the positives beyond that, beyond retention, which is you've got a situation where for whatever reason someone is long-term sick or has to leave in a certain way or just doesn't work out. You've got some continuity. You've got some mental capital of understanding of the job. So I think it's almost like an insurance. And I think looking at it that way, plus the creativity of two heads, as long as they can communicate well and get on together and be seamless, in that sense, it can only be a benefit.
Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely. And I think what you bring up here is also touching on this concept of diversity and equal opportunity for flexibility, because anyone can, God forbid, become sick. Right. And in these types of working models, though, mothers, moms are great use case could also be extremely applicable to men and or other parents and people who don't have children. Right. Really, anyone could potentially benefit from these types of working models.
Justine Roberts: Yeah. And I think it's important to also say that, I hate the idea of talking about millennials as a separate species, but they do have slightly different ideas about work ethic.
Sophie Smallwood: Right.
Justine Roberts: And some of it is about balance.
Sophie Smallwood: Totally.
Justine Roberts: Being able to pursue other passions and not just be a slave to the workforce. So if you embed this kind of working practice, flexibility, whatever you call it, for all your employees, I think it's, again, a way of attracting people. The days when a colleague or a member of staff is a slave to the nine to five, I just feel very outdated and off-putting, I think, to young people who we're interviewing.
Sophie Smallwood: Absolutely. And I look at remote working as sort of a Trojan horse of flexible working. It's one that I think more and more companies are embracing across genders and across reasons. And that can become absolutely normal inside of an organization and completely accepted because there are still companies out there who don't really like remote working. Until remote working becomes completely accepted, then I think we might be ready to really fully embrace all the other working models that are flexible. So go remote working! Let's get you in every single company out there. How do you feel or what do you think roles will be shaped like in the future?
Justine Roberts: I do think we are going to move to a results-only working environment. I think we have to. And I think the one thing about the younger generation is they will absolutely demand that they're treated like grown-ups. If you think about this time-based concept that young people, they go off to university and suddenly they're in charge of their own time, but then they go into the workplace and suddenly you own their time. I think we've got to give up owning people's time and start focusing on, are they doing the job? And there are massive benefits in that because lots of people if you're not looking at the outcomes, you're just looking about whether they turn up or stay late, then you're not necessarily benefiting the business. You're having a lot of people who are succeeding in the business based on the wrong metric, the wrong metric being presenteist.
Sophie Smallwood: And that was Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet. Empathy, understanding. These are key ingredients to a sustainable workforce. Covid-19 is yet another reminder, we need to protect women's positions in the workplace by enabling their career longevity and growth. Companies like Mumsnet and Roleshare help do that. Thanks for listening and join us for the next episode of Talk Roleshare.