As I sit here, four and a half months pregnant with my second child and a couple of weeks in to strict social distancing for the foreseeable future, my mind can’t help but drift back and forth between how my working life changed after having my first baby and how it has just changed (for all of us) whilst expecting my second because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As a new mum I, like tens of thousands of women in the UK, was left with no choice other than to hand in my notice in at the end of my maternity leave. My story echoes that of many: a combination of poor leadership, discrimination and, above all, a lack of trust in flexible working, ultimately resulted in me not being able to continue in a role that I loved, for an organisation I had been completely dedicated to for a decade. The feeling of disappointment when you are let down by an organisation you have put so much in to, at a vulnerable moment in your life, is enough to completely shift your perspective on what is truly important. I found myself looking for a new way of working.

It’s not just new parents that face this problem. Anyone who has any sort of lifestyle that doesn’t fit well with the standard 9-5 working pattern – those who act as carers for others, have health issues of their own, or want to be involved in a few more activities outside of their day job, for example – all face similar issues. Here in the UK many organisations, including conservation ones, have resisted or at least overlooked, the opportunities that modern technology offers and remained stuck in a very monotonous rut when it comes to working patterns and practice. Contracts tend to revolve around 9-5, Monday to Friday, and many people are still required to undertake their full hours at their place of work in a set routine, often with evening and weekend work as overtime rather than flexi-time. Of course, there are tasks and roles that can’t be done more flexibly, but often this isn’t the case. In my opinion it frequently boils down to managers finding it difficult to trust their employees to manage their time effectively and, as such, they won’t countenance the idea of trying to make flexible working work.

But last week that all changed overnight. Managers found themselves with no choice but to find alternative ways of working during the coronavirus lockdown, and having to trust their employees to do their best to get their jobs done from home, for many on top of home-schooling their children and ensuring vulnerable and isolated friends and relatives are looked after. Daily exercise along with looking after your mental health became a priority too. Suddenly, all that was impossible the week before became possible with teams learning how to make the best of the technology available to them to remain connected. It became acceptable for work to be undertaken at any hour of the day as long as it gets done. We swapped our commutes for exercise and extra time to take care of ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Everyone tried to help each other, cared about each other’s health and wellbeing, and took stock of what was important. Suddenly, we were all in this together and determined to do our utmost to make it work.

At present I find myself extremely thankful to be working with the Osprey Leadership Foundation (OLF), which has a Founder and Trustee board with a very progressive approach to the way they want their team to work. Their aim is to balance the wellbeing of their team with the well being of the charity, trusting that if they do right by their people, their people will do right by them. Like my team members I work remotely from home and instead of working specific days and times each week, I work a set number of hours per month which can be undertaken flexibly. I’m trusted to prioritise my workload effectively and complete my tasks to the best of my ability. How I manage my time is up to me. My new working arrangements are giving my family and I a much better work-life balance (or more accurately, work-life blend), my physical and mental health are much improved and, despite everything that’s going on, I feel optimistic that this time I will come out the other side of my forthcoming maternity leave with my career intact. As luck would have it, OLF was as prepared as we could have been to work around lock-down and social distancing restrictions. (Don’t get me wrong, we are still at home in a crisis with our families trying to get work done without any childcare etc. which is much more challenging than working from home as we would normally).
I wonder, if as a result of the changes being made now due to coronavirus, when I return from maternity leave whether OLF will be one of many conservation organisations where flexible working is the norm, rather than the exception, especially as we are already beginning to see experience some environmental benefits of the lock-down; in particular this week it was reported across the news that air quality improvements have been seen in nations around the world, including the UK which has experienced big drops in pollution in our major cities as a result of the reduction in travel and industry.
It has become clear in the last couple of weeks that with the absence of gyms, cinemas, shops and eateries to spend time in our green spaces are the places many people are turning to for their short periods of freedom each day. They are the places we go to relax, exercise and get some fresh air – so much so that they are one luxury we are struggling to live without as the sunny weather tempts people out to their local parks, rural footpaths, nature reserves and beaches. Whilst of course I don’t condone those that break the rules, I am quietly pleased to see evidence of the value our society places on these spaces for their physical and mental health, especially during such a difficult time. It’s good to know that we are not content at home in front of a screen, and still need to be able to connect with nature, even if it’s just in the form of a short walk around the block. I hope these weeks spent in lock-down will reinforce our affection for our green spaces, and potentially result in greater engagement with the work of the conservation sector in the future.

When “all this” is over we will find ourselves deciding to either look back to a comfort zone that existed before this crisis or looking forwards to something new. There is opportunity in adversity, and leaders at all levels are being given the chance to test whether we can break the mould.
Perhaps, many of us will have a better work-life balance. Because if as a society we can make this extreme version of flexible working work under such exceptionally difficult circumstances, we will surely have earnt that all important trust from employers and proven we can be given the freedom to tweak our working hours here and there to be able to place higher priority on our well being? Perhaps the 9-5 will be a thing of the past. Perhaps we won’t lose skilled and experienced people from the workforce because they don’t fit the stereotypical working template. Perhaps we won’t commute as much. Perhaps we won’t see our colleagues in person as often, but we’ll be more connected than ever. Perhaps we’ll be more present in every aspect of our lives. Perhaps we’ll feel empowered to undertake our jobs with greater pride, with energy we didn’t have before, and to our very best, every single day.  Perhaps we won’t miss those important milestones in the lives of our loved ones. Perhaps we’ll get to do those things we don’t have time for now. Perhaps we will have a greater appreciation of how important our green spaces are to us all.  Perhaps we’ll remember this sense of togetherness and continue to work together to make a new way of working work for everyone. And perhaps nature will thank us for it. Perhaps…

An opinion piece by Becky Park, Programme Manager 

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