6 Apr 2024

On a mission to change the 'archaic' 9 to 5 for parents

From Saturday Morning, 9:14 am on 6 April 2024

Photo: supplied/Ellen Joad Ford

Working 9 to 5 may seem like an immovable part of work culture, but former New Zealand Army captain Dr Ellen Joan Ford is on a mission to change it.

Ford was recognised with a Kiwibank Local Hero award last year for her work remotely leading a team during the Covid pandemic to free 563 Afghan refugees when the Taliban seized control in 2021.

Ford, who currently teaches leadership in business and high-performance teams, now has a new fight on her hands - making working parents' lives better, under the banner #workschoolhours.

She has released a new book with that name, making the argument for companies to rethink the current work model.

The 9 to 5, which was formed more than 100 years ago, was based on the societal norms at the time where the breadwinner was typically the man and the homemaker was typically the woman, Ford told Saturday Morning.

The people who went to work were not the same people who spent time with the children.

"But of course that is not our workforce today and hasn't been for decades so the construct ... it is archaic and absolutely needs to be changed to meet the needs of today."

Ford said the movement was not a dogmatic change to 9 to 3, rather a focus on three principles.

One, organisations should do more to value the fact that their employees have things they care about outside of work.

Two, organisations should focus more on output and what their employees deliver, rather than hours of work.

Three, organisations should give employees more flexibility to do their work.

Ford argued this was a "commercially smart" business decision.

There were some organisations that already worked with these models but many did not, she said.

"The reality from the data in my research, which was from hundreds and hundreds of working parents across New Zealand and further afield internationally, is that no, that is not the experience of most working parents.

"They are in organisations where they do not have the flexibility that they need and they are struggling."

One way to attract and retain great talent was through salaries but Ford said that only went so far.

"It's one thing to retain talent but it's another to actually have them highly engaged and productive and doing their best work. So when there are people who work in an organisation but don't really want to be there, they're just kind of stuck because the economy's tight, that doesn't mean they're going to be doing their best work so organisations certainly shouldn't take that as a win.

"Secondly, again, the data from my research, I've got countless examples of people walking away from significantly higher salaries ... because it gives them flexibility."

The Afghan refugees

Ford also spoke to Saturday Morning about the Afghan refugees she helped to free.

They had all "effectively run away from their homes" and were in hiding with their families, waiting to be evacuated. 

"There were absolutely close calls with those families, some of them, their extended family experienced effectively, punishment because of their association with the New Zealand Defence Force."

But one of the biggest concerns Ford and her team had was that the families waiting to be evacuated did not have access to money.

The pandemic also threw a spanner in the mix.

"When families cross borders, because this was all done above board, they had to go through a third country before they then came to New Zealand and ... all the Covid testing and the isolation periods were in place."

While she has not kept in contact with everyone, Ford told Saturday Morning she was still in close contact with a few families who were "doing well".

"So I just caught up some of the kids ... two weeks ago when I was in Auckland and especially the little girls, they're at school. They're smart, bright wee girls, they speak fluent English and I just can't wait to see what happens as they grow."