Flexible working in a start-up: the view from the other side of the hiring table

Woman on balcony

Agility is key to the survival of any start-up business. But how do you approach the flexible working question if you’re applying for a role in a young accountancy business?

We speak to Zoe Whitman, founder of award-winning start-up But the Books to find out…

Zoe comes from a corporate background and founded a small bookkeeping practice, But the Books, in her hometown of Bristol while she was on maternity leave. Now, just two years later, she employs three members of staff and does the accounts for many local creative businesses and start-ups. Who better to give us a few tips on how to get a flexible accountancy job at a start-up?

The hard work starts before you apply

Think carefully about how you’d like to work flexibly and how it can complement the fledgling business you’re interested in working for. 'You have to understand the requirements of the job, the pressure points and think through what you would do. For example, job share can be really valuable to an employer because you have two people’s skill sets, the whole week is covered and each person brings their different connections and systems. But you need to find that other person before you apply.'

Be honest about any career breaks

Make sure there are no unexplained gaps in your CV. 'If nothing else, massive gaps show really bad attention to detail. When I’m recruiting, I don’t mind if someone has been made redundant, or been on maternity leave – that’s life. And I know it can be daunting when you’ve had a few years off work, but I expect people to be honest. I like to see that people have used that time to develop themselves – it doesn’t have to be work-related, but I want to understand what they have done.'

Focus on your skills

Finding flexible employment can be more of a challenge when you’re an external candidate. You have to lead on your skills and make the employer want you. 'You should be treated equally on skills and not the hours you’re asking for. Comparing one candidate against another, I’ll want to choose the person with the most relevant experience and skills, the one who can do the best job. There’ll always be an element of, does it work with the business’s needs, but that’s something to discuss when you get to the interview.'

Zoe also believes that no one should sell themselves short when applying for a role – whether flexible, part-time or full-time. 'In terms of selling yourself, make sure you’ve read the job description and that you tick a lot of the boxes. You don’t have to think, ‘I must do everything on this’, because no one will be able to do everything. If you can do a handful of them, and you’re confident you can learn the rest, you should apply.'

Be open about your flexible requirements

Although Zoe recommends you lead on skills, her view is that you should be clear about your flexible requirements sooner rather than later. 'When I’m recruiting, I don’t want someone who feels they can’t talk openly to me; I’d rather they were honest about wanting to work on a flexible basis.

'I’d personally suggest approaching it in the interview, to avoid difficult conversations later. Be clear about what your ideal set-up is – such as whether it’s a part-time role or just working from home some of the time. There’ll be a natural time to ask – even if it’s at the "Do you have any other questions’ point!"'

Build a case for flexible working in a start-up

Make sure you give examples of how your flexible time will look and how you plan to make it work in a busy new business.

As Zoe says: 'If someone in an interview said they wanted to work part-time, I would immediately ask how they would manage things. So make sure you have a plan. For example, if you’re a parent, you may need to leave the office at 6pm. In this case, you could say you’ll always have a 5pm catch-up in case anyone needs to talk to you before you leave. Think about what you can do to manage situations when you’re not there.'

Finally, don’t be afraid

So, what are Zoe’s last words of advice to anyone who’s hoping to get a flexible role in a start-up?

'Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward if you’re a genuinely good fit, because you have a good chance of getting to interview. The hard part is getting your covering letter and CV past the gatekeeper. And then you can wow people when you’re in the room with them.'

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