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What does workplace flexibility look like in 2019?

From her politically conscious, working class roots to overcoming bullying and the challenges of being a working mum and founding one of Australia’s few truly flexible workplaces, Jo Scard tells us about her journey and how she makes her flexible business model work.

I’ve really fallen from one great job to another through my life and that’s in no small part due to my family background and how they inspired me to go and be engaged with the world. I came from a working class family but they were politically minded intellectuals. They instilled in me a very keen interest in learning, being aware of social issues and being part of the world. So I then went on and studied law and from there moved into politics. I think they really set the framework for me to go and do what I have done.

The very first job I had out of uni I was earning more than my father at the top of his career. There’s nothing starker than that. I didn’t realise the implications of that until I was older and why my parents thought that I should have been able to own a house by the age of 30. I probably could have afforded a house by the age of 30 but there was travel and shoes… So for someone whose Mum was a nurse and Dad was a plumber, I’ve gone on to have a very fortunate life which to my parents appeared to be very indulgent but I suppose it’s a world that I live in. To someone who comes from a poor working class family, being a middle class person seems very indulgent.

The thing that propelled me to move out of politics and start my own business was that one of my superiors bullied all the women in the office, including myself. It was interesting that my experience with workplace bullying occurred when I was in a senior leadership position. At that point I was in my early 40s, I’d had this absolutely fabulous career, I’d gone from amazing job to amazing job and I’d never been bullied in my life. I’d never witnessed it, I’d never had to deal with it, and I didn’t quite know what to do about it. I thought I wasn’t able to do anything. I cried, but bullies thrive off that. If I were in the same situation today, I would make a formal complaint about them and call them out as a bully. I’d also look at moving offices.

I knew that I had the skills to start my own business. I didn’t have the 100 page business plan but I’m not sure that many people do when they first start a business. I didn’t know where it was going to go, I didn’t have a world plan. I didn’t have any vision of what the business has now become. But I’d always been successful so I felt strong and that I could do it easily. I started to plan and organise to get the business off the ground. I secured a URL, I took care of my business collateral, I got the website up and running. I secured four good clients and from day one I was billing significant amounts of money and haven’t turned back.

The week I started my business my son was diagnosed with cancer. It was a low grade cancer and he didn’t have to have any hardcore treatment but it just floored us.  It’s hard to acknowledge the fragility of life when you have to keep moving forward. It rocked us and impacted our mental health. So I came out of a bullying situation and my son had cancer, but the business survived and kept growing and taking on new clients.

I’d never written a book before but I’m an ideas person. The inspiration came when I met a very smart woman who was shocked to find when she had a baby and tried to put them in childcare, the providers told her she should have put the baby’s name down on the waiting list as soon as she got pregnant. I began to wonder, if a highly intelligent woman doesn’t know how the childcare system works, what other things about the integration of work and life don’t smart women and mums know? So the idea for The Working Mother’s Survival Guide was born.

The big thing that came out of working on the book that was the notion of the flexible workplace. I knew the value of that as in the early 2000s I had gone through the process of returning to work after having kids. I had a boss who was way ahead of his time in terms of saying ‘you do what you feel like and we can arrange your work around it’. But the thing was I’d leave at 4:45pm to pick up kids and get the side eye from people in the office who didn’t have kids, wondering where I was going and why I was getting special treatment. People don’t see the work you do, they think I’m going to go and have a pedicure or go home, put my feet up and have a glass of wine. But as a working Mum you certainly pull your weight, just as much, if not more than others. You work outside the office, you’re on email late at night. And it is this out of hours work that colleagues don’t see but we still feel judged on.

My desire to work flexibly and provide flexibility for others was one of the driving factors behind starting my own business. I don’t want to employ someone and tell them ‘Hey, you can’t have your dog’ whilst I have my dog at work or I go out in the middle of the day to get my hair cut. So I say to them you can go out in the middle of the day to get your hair cut, but take your laptop, take some earphones and just work around it. Everyone is so committed to their job because of that give and take. We work normal hours. People start at 9am, they work long hours, they work really hard but they’re given flexibility. My team includes some working mums, some people who work from Bali because they like hanging out up there, and someone who has a chronic health condition, chronic colitis. They need to see lots of doctors and have transfusions, so I give them complete flexibility. They go and work from the hospital whilst they are receiving intravenous treatment. There’s probably not a lot of workplaces that would let you do that.

Most people love the flexibility. It makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of environmental sense. It makes a lot of human sense. I have groups of people in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Canberra, Byron Bay, Bali, Canada and the United States who are on the ground for client meetings. They all work from co-working spaces or from home. They come together, but they don’t always sit with each other every day of the week. They have the flexibility to work from home however much they want.

Trust sets us apart. Early on, one of my staff asked me, ‘How are you going to know if I’m doing my job?’ and I said I’d know based on the quality of what you’re giving me and what your outputs are. In a traditional workplace, who is to know what the person sitting at the next desk is really doing? They could be looking up a recipe, or doing online shopping, planning their next holiday or just not thinking about work because there are so many distractions. How do you know if they’re doing their work? It’s their output. it’s the same criteria ultimately. At Fifty Acres we have check-ins every day. We have a staff meeting every day for the best part of an hour and client pod meetings everyday, we have Skype chat on all the time. We’re always communicating. I don’t think it’s any different to be honest.

People are always shocked when I say the cost of my monthly accommodation overheads for my team to work in co-working spaces is under $500. I pay staff phone bills, but my staff have their own laptops, they pay for their own electricity, their own Wi-Fi. So I don’t have any of those costs. We have Skype meetings, there are some costs associated with the software we use like accounting software but everyone has that. So our costs are really low which enables us to reduce the pricing we give to our clients as well.

My 3 tips for businesses looking at improving their workplace flexibility are:

  1. Believe that your team can do it. If you trust them, they will give it back to you in spades.
  2. Make sure your team celebrates wins. People need to be given big ups when they succeed, even if it’s just virtual high five emojis across the team.
  3. Don’t let people have a long leash. If something happens, pull employees up on it, let them know that it isn’t right and shouldn’t be done this way. Don’t let it go through to the keeper.


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