Christine Armstrong: The Changing World of Work

Christine Armstrong (Langwith Hall, 1992-1995) is a keynote speaker and researcher into the world of work. Christine speaks to Alumni Voices about recent changes in working patterns, gender roles and life in general.

The history of the working model

The world of work that we have now is based on an ideal that I think is quite well demonstrated by the book, ‘The Tiger Who Came For Tea,’ which came out in 1963. It portrays this idealised idea of what middle-class, professional working families looked like. You have mummy and Sophie at home; making buns, feeding tigers (making sure daddy’s tea is ready), clearing up mess and you have Daddy; who’s out at the office, comes home with his good idea to go to the cafe when everything goes wrong because (obviously) he controls the finances in the household.  I think that the office concept in that era, where you had somebody at home, made sense. It didn’t work for everyone. There were lots of very frustrated women, and depressed and frustrated men as well, but the system as it was designed sort of made sense; you had somebody who managed the domestic and somebody who managed the professional sphere. 

Since that period, obviously we’ve had a number of massive trends that have made it impossible. One of which is the rise of ‘always on’. When I interview people who, the peak of their career was in the 70s or 80s, they say,

‘There was a huge amount of pressure but at the end of day you didn’t have a laptop, you didn’t have a phone, you didn’t have a blackberry, you didn’t even have a fax machine. You just went home.’’ 

Although it made it very intense when you were there, there were endpoints to your working day when your leisure time could start. Those sorts of things have gone as we know, obviously, we’ve had the massive rise in women’s employment and dual income households. So then you’ve got not just one person always on but potentially two people always on and nobody’s really explained where the domestic is supposed to fit into that; where the shopping, the cleaning, the dog, the kids, the car servicing and the booking the dentist. Where does that all go in that model?

How Covid changed the model

The policies that we put in place during Covid revealed to huge swathes of the population that there were other ways of doing this, that we could still do a productive day of work and exercise or join clubs or take our children to and from school. For so many people, it’s much better than what we had before.

I think the frustration that’s emerging now is that so many senior people (and the outspoken ones certainly are all men at the moment); Elon Musk, Lord Alan Sugar, Malcolm Gladwell, Steve Bartlett, Jacob Rees-Mogg – they’re all people who don’t have caring responsibilities. These are people with enough money that they never clean their bathroom; they never put on their own laundry; they’re never trailing around Sainsbury’s Local at six o’clock on a Tuesday night in the rain, trying to find something that everyone will eat for dinner and collecting somebody from Scouts. They don’t understand why this change is so fundamentally precious and important to so many people.

“Elon Musk, Lord Alan Sugar, Malcolm Gladwell, Steve Bartlett, Jacob Rees-Mogg – they’re all people who don’t have caring responsibilities.”

Covid has shown us what’s possible and I think a huge number of people are absolutely delighted by that. I interviewed a single mum not very long ago. She said, 

‘I could never get to the seniority of the job that I have now unless I could do two or three days from home because my kids have been through a traumatic divorce – I feel I need to be there and this enables me to have a reasonably senior job and also to be at home when I need to be.’

I think a huge number of people, and not just parents, have been liberated. It’s shown us the potential and that is really exciting. I don’t think we’ve perfected it but I think that we have the chance to do that. 

The Six Workplace Models

We are seeing six workplace models now for knowledge-based work.

All remote – there may be an office, there may not but there’s no requirement to go to it. 

Work from anywhere – no requirement to go to an office but regular retreats or getaways where you get people together, maybe on an offsite, maybe on an on-site, depends on your model. 

Fluid hybrid – you’re “all grown up” so you come in when you want to, when you need to.

Fixed hybrid – you must be in on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays; whatever the pattern is.

Four day week – a rising trend.

Full return to the office. 

Everybody is falling into one of those buckets. A lot of people right now are trying to jump out of fluid-hybrid and jump into fixed hybrid because they’re finding it’s not working for them. 

I think these models have made it easier for people to choose how they want to work and to find employers based on that. We find that the number one factor people are looking for if they change work is the model of working so they have a choice.  They will look beyond salary and in fact, to get people back five days a week, it’s costing somewhere between 8-15% on salary and you’re getting less strong candidates.  For employers your model is both the way of attracting people that you might want or repelling them. For employees, it is the number one way that you can say, ‘this is who I am.’ 

“We find that the number one factor people are looking for if they change work is the model of working so they have a choice.”

I spoke to somebody recently who is a PA, she lives on her own and she loves offices and wanted to work five days a week in an office and put it on her CV and she got jumped on – loads of people wanted her work for them just based on that.  It allows us to find the right space for ourselves and opens up different conversations and possibilities which can only be a good thing. 

It’s thrown everything into the air and allowed it to reform in a way that is both exciting but also quite scary to employers as some employers think they’ve lost power. We definitely see that in interviews, employers saying, 

‘I’ve asked them to be on a call at 4 o’clock and they say they can’t because they’ve got to go and pick up the kids. What is going on?’ Previously, they just would have been the office and there would have been no debate about it. The loss of power though is stressing some managers, who are then driving a lot of the return to the office debate.

Advice for navigating the remote world of work

The best advice is to sit down with your team and go through your working process; identify when you need to be together, at what points things can be done remotely, at what points you need online interaction. Being really analytical about the actual tasks that you have to do is really important. Lots of people are swinging between coming in when you need to or coming in on fixed days. Very few people have gone through the hard yards of working out a monthly project plan, agreeing on the fixed points and how they can make that predictable.

Our research shows that people value predictability very highly. If the day that you went into the office every week changed it could be really stressful because you don’t know when you might need to book a dog walker or when you could book a yoga class after work, when you could go have a coffee with somebody at lunch time – you just don’t know. People want predictability and you’ve got to be able to combine that with making sense of why they’re going in. 

Going into an office now costs people money in the same way that it did before, but they were unaware of it. It was just written off like your council tax or your water bill. Now it’s a discretionary spend. People are asking, 

‘Why am I doing that? What do I get out of it?’

The proposition has fundamentally changed, taking away the unpredictability matters, but also taking away the arbitrary boss power nature of, ‘You must be in these days,’ and their employees go in and sit on Teams all day, without talking to anyone is pointless so you want something more meaningful.

“The best advice is to sit down with your team and go through your working process; identify when you need to be together, at what points things can be done remotely, at what points you need online interaction.”

A more equal society

I think the brilliant news is that so many men have reconnected into their households and felt much more empowered to say, 

‘Actually I like being at home as well. I haven’t ever been able to have dinner with my kids five nights a week and I don’t want to totally let that go. I don’t mind compromising but I don’t want to leave before the kids are up in the morning and get home when they’re in bed every night anymore.’

That’s a magnificent change in terms of society and role models. It’s been really positive to see a younger generation of men who are much more comfortable vocalising the fact that they don’t want to work all the time, that they look at the model set by the previous generation and go, 

‘You know, I don’t want to work 70/80 hours a week and then go to the pub and marry somebody that I work with; I want to have hobbies, I want to be healthy. I want to develop myself in ways other than my career.’ 

I think the good news for women is that it enables them to have a more senior job than they might have done otherwise and also to be present at home in a way that they want to. 

Hopefully it will equalise perceptions of a less regimented way of working that’s less gender specific. But there are of course risk factors. If all women work fewer days in the office than men then potentially we end up with office culture changing in an unhealthy way or an unbalanced way, where 50% of the population might be less well represented and that would be a shame. 

I was talking to a Finance Director at a big drinks company and he was really interesting. He is in his 50s, he’s been very successful, he runs a big team and he said, 

‘This is the happiest time in my career. This is amazing. I spend more time with my partner, I spend more time with my grown-up kids, I spend more time at home, time with my dog. I’m healthier and fitter than I’ve been for years.’  But (and he’s not unusual in this) he has internal conflicts about it,

‘It doesn’t feel right, if I was CEO I think I’d make everyone go back, it feels not fully committed.’

I think he’s a really good representation of how a lot of people feel: almost slightly guilty that this is so pleasurable; but this is so possible. 

“Hopefully it will equalise perceptions of a less regimented way of working that’s less gender specific.”

I think we have to normalise fatherhood as an important role – that starts with paternity leave and making it important that dad’s take time out of work. One of the things that I cite in my book is some emerging research around how having a baby reduces men’s testosterone. They actually become less aggressive, less externally focused and become more focused on the family if they spend time with their children. If they go straight back out to work, their testosterone goes back to where it was before. We need to get men more involved in family life from the beginning, which changes the dynamic for their children and changes perceptions in society.  I think some of that has taken a step forward to see a lot more dads at school gates than you, certainly ever used to, which is fantastic. 

The domestic load is an ongoing problem that we haven’t really cracked. I really like Eve Rosdki’s work on this (an American writer and thinker). She’s written a book called, ‘Fair play’, which is a really analytical piece on ‘pink jobs’ and ‘blue jobs’. If in a heterosexual relationship, you divide jobs up and it tends to be that women end up with things like cooking meals, doing pickups, getting school lunches ready, cooking tea; the men are more likely to end up with sorting storage, sorting the insurance and finances, running the garage. What she points out is that the women have the jobs that have to be done every single day at very fixed times and the ones that men have don’t have to be done every day and often can be fitted in an hour on a Sunday morning or late at night and so the pressure on their careers is really different. 

It’s symptomatic of the way that we organise things because the only way you can get to the top in business or politics is by either not having children, having a full-time partner who cares for those children or having funds to pay for somebody else to look after those children. That means that most of the people at the top of government and business don’t understand what it means to combine a job with raising a family and, almost by definition, you can’t get to the senior levels where you make those decisions if you’ve actually experienced it. We just don’t have enough people who really get it. They can talk the talk but they don’t fundamentally understand it. 

“The women have the jobs that have to be done every single day at very fixed times and the ones that men have don’t have to be done every day and often can be fitted in an hour on a Sunday morning or late at night and so the pressure on their careers is really different.”

I think the work that ‘Pregnant then screwed’ (Joeli Brierley is based in York) is doing is absolutely incredible. She’s really captured the frustration of millions of families where women are being priced out of work and their families are suffering because they can’t work as much as they need to. I think if we were economically strategic the value of investment in child care, in terms of the return you get on tax and GDP is massive. 

It’s an absolute no-brainer that we should be investing in it and liberating men and women to go back to work. Equally, on the other side, we also need to make sure employers are helping people manage their time better so that days can start and end and not be boundaryless so that people can go in with energy, do a really good job and then stop and do something else.

The pattern that you see in couples who are getting the split in work-life balance of childcare right is that they acknowledge it’s both of their jobs and they think about how they allocate roles. 

I interviewed a man from one of the big management consultancies, who said,

‘I didn’t realise in the early days of having children that working harder meant that my wife’s career was being tipped off the rails because every time I missed a pick up and she had to step in, she was walking out of her job to do that and it was damaging her reputation. What I realised was that I had to step back in order for both of us to be able to thrive.’ I think that self-aware conversation is absolutely essential to evolve. Regardless of income, we have to value our time as the same and talk about what you want to get out of it and work from that.

The Future of the workplace 

Ideally, we will end up with six models that people who can work remotely are broadly able to choose from and we will get better at making those models work, in a more collaborative, more engaged way – meeting the needs of both extroverts and introverts. I think the scary possibility is the KPMG survey that came out quite recently that said that 65% of Chief Executives globally want to go back to five days a week in the office within three years. I think if we don’t get the systems right now, we risk a real push back to the office and we will have missed an amazing opportunity to change the world of work.

If anyone is doing research into the world of work, Christine would love to hear from you. Feel free to send her a message via her Linked In or email via the website

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1 Comment

  1. Angela Blazy O'Reilly

    A very interesting and thought-provoking analysis. My daughter and husband, both late 30s with 2 toddlers, are doctors in the NHS. Unfortunately in their case (and for most NHS employees working in hospitals) the new, more flexible work modes are just not possible (you can’t be offsite when you are meant to be on a ward rota). This said, they are both going to take advantage of the possibility of part-time work (the only real flexibility available to them) so as to cope with caring for their children. Their sharing of tasks is much more equal than in my generation and yet, inevitably, it is the wife who has had to make career choices in order to “fit in” the demands of motherhood, something I feel has led her to miss out on opportunities in her career.

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