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We Need Radical Trust

Liz Johnson talks about flexible working , something that has been forced upon museums by the Covid-19 crisis.

How, why and when we work matters in the volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex world and links to our creativity, mental health and effectiveness.

This presentation was made as part of the MuseumNext Disrupt Conference in 2020.


Everyone, my name’s Liz Johnson and welcome to my spare room in sunny or not so sunny, Lester. I want to talk to you today about radical trust. Now it’s going to look for a while like I’m talking to you about flexible working and about being a parent and having a job, but I’ll explain to you why I think that is actually talking about trust and why trust at work is so important. In fact, we know it is important because a recent study found that trust releases brain chemicals or oxytocin that makes jobs seem a lot more like fun and less like work. Companies with high levels of trust had a workforce that were 76% more engaged in their job, and 50% more productive when compared to the lowest. In other words, the more trusted we feel at work, the better work we do.

So to go back to the beginning, I think we’ve got a problem. I think that we have a sort of a mash up over a number of different ways of working happening right now. We have a kind of Monday to Friday, nine to five latent kind of Edwardian, Victorian expectation of our working week. But we are servicing a cultural offer as it were that exists 365 days a year, 52 weeks a year. It doesn’t stop, does it? Culture doesn’t stop or all right, museums do close. But what we do isn’t confined to the Monday to Friday, nine to five envelope. And if you add onto that digital availability, I think we’ve got a problem. And I think that the impact of that is stress. I think we are servicing more than one different way of working simultaneously. And actually, it’s been found that working mothers of two children, which is as you’ll discover the situation that I’m in can be up to 40% more stressed.

And this is defined as work-family conflict, which brings higher levels of psychological strain and lower levels of wellbeing. Now, why do I care about this? Well, I care about it because it’s my life. And I’ll talk about my journey to exploring and discovering more about what flexible working is. But let’s just go back to the beginning, flexible working 101. Here are some of the conceptions that people have about what flexible working is. That it’s for parents, that it’s for carers, that it means working in a particular work pattern.

Actually, it means all of those things, but the straightforward definition is a way of working that suits an employees needs. So although I’m going to talk about my lived experience and my journey to discovering the benefits of flexible working, which comes through becoming a parent. Actually, I’ve discovered through all my conversations with people that it applies in a much broader way to people in different who have different lives and different lived experiences. So on the government’s website, you can find this, flexible working as a way of working that suits an employee’s needs. For example, having a flexible start and finish time or working from home. Crucially, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working, not just parents and carers.

So gather around and I’ll tell you a story. About 10 years ago now, unbelievably, I became a mom. And this young person came into the world, her name’s Lexi. She’s the one in pink in case you’re wondering. And when that was the case, I started thinking about what my working life would be like when I returned from maternity leave. And I assumed that the way to manage it, because this was the model that I saw around me was that I would work part-time and somehow balance that with nursery. And it was my partner who said, there might be a different way of doing this. We both work in the public sector, both public sector organisations have flexible working policies that include compacted hours. Why don’t we think about both working a compacted week that overlaps with each other so that we can both spend an equal amount of time with Lexi and we can both still continue to work full time.

My tiny mind was blown and I went to negotiate with my employer who agreed within 24 hours. For my husband, it was very much more difficult. It took nine months and protracted conversations with them because it was very unusual for a man to ask for these kind of working conditions 10 years ago. And this is where our concept of co-parenting and co-careering was born. The idea that neither one of us is the primary caregiver and that neither one of us has the dominant career or the most important career. So from this point on, this is back in 2012 now. I was responsible for Lexi on a Monday, and I did my work Tuesday to Friday with slightly longer days. And Andy, my partner was responsible on a Friday and he did his work Monday to Thursday, but slightly longer days. And that worked very, very well.

Some interesting things were said to him during the process of negotiating this working pattern. One of which was, why can’t your wife work part-time so that you can work full-time? Another of which was, but what if other men in the office want to do the same? I’ll leave you to make your own judgement as to what you think of those particular comments. Different things were said to me. Don’t you miss spending time with your baby? And isn’t he to your wonderful dad? So I started talking about it and I started blogging and tweeting and writing articles and speaking at conferences and arranging sessions, and just started talking about flexible working. And as I did that, I learned. I learned from Zara when she was writing in the museum’s journal in 2018. That actually it doesn’t just affect how we work when our work and family life are in conflict with each other.

It affects how we access training and development. I learned from Steve here on a direct message from Twitter that it’s harder, he feels it’s hard as a man to talk about flexible working. So he’s decided not to formalise it with his employers. He just sort of bodges it because he worries that it would count against him if there were changes in the workplace. I learned from Claire Hodgson, the very brilliant Claire Hodgson that actually, there’s a different way of thinking about work. That we don’t need to define work in terms of hours and days worked. We could think about it in terms of tasks completed. And she asked a very brilliant question, what would happen if we didn’t measure jobs in terms of days worked, but in terms of tasks completed? And you can start to see why I think this relates to trust in the workplace.

So here’s what happened next. The little pumpkin on the left was born in 2013. And so we go back around the loop again, and I get another job in 2017. And at this point, I take on a team, I’ve got 10 direct reports, I’ve got a commute, my husband’s got a new job, he’s got a commute, we’ve got two children at school and it’s a whole nother negotiation. So this is what the week then ends up looking like. We still stick with that basic principle of co-parenting and co-careering. Andy is now doing drop off. So I set off for work super early, he drops off at breakfast club. But I get back early and I do the pickup from after school club. I’m still dropping off and picking up at school on a Monday, he’s dropping off and picking up at school on a Friday and somewhere the work is getting done.

And sometimes if both of us are committed in the evenings, then we’ve also employed a babysitter. It starts to feel a little bit like this. One of my favourite cartoons from Alex Norris. And this has always been one of my favourite quotes, “We can’t parent like we don’t have jobs and work like we don’t have children.” And in fact, if you try to do this, if you try to do the opposite to parent like you don’t have a job and work like you don’t have children, then you come unstuck very, very quickly because it’s not possible. And this is why I won’t talk about work-life balance because for me, work is part of life. And what I would like to see and what I’m advocating for as I continue to talk to people about this is that we trust each other to find the working pattern that suits us the best.

What is stopping us from trusting each other more in the workplace? And it’s interesting, in this post COVID world or during COVID world that we are living in now that we’ve seen such a rapid rise in working from home. It’s gone from an average of 6% to 43% of people working from home. And nine out of 10 of those people don’t want to go back into the office. But the pressure is building, the pressure is building in Britain for people to go back to the office. Because of course, it does have a knock on effect on the economies of other businesses around. But my plea is that we think about that fact that trust and productivity have a really causal link. If you trust people more and you trust people to work in the way that is best for them at the time that is best for them, then you will get better results. So we need to take what we’ve learned through the pandemic, we need to take this greater blend that we are experiencing of work and life and not return back to the way things were before.

Thank you very much. This is my Twitter handle if you want to get in touch and I’ve included some other Twitter handles here.


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