Goodbye 9 to 5: Meet the London Mum Who Is Revolutionizing the Workplace

Karen Mattison runs the Timewise Foundation, which helps women (and some men) find flexibility in the workplace without compromising their careers.

Before hitting 30, Karen Mattison had already risen to the rank of chief executive of a British charity. But like many high-powered career women of her generation, she found herself stuck once she started having children.

On the one hand, she was fortunate enough to find another job that allowed her to work a four-day week so that she could spend more time with her small boys. On the other hand, she understood that this flexibility was the kiss of death for any plans to move up the organizational ladder.

I can’t be the only one in this situation, she told herself. And thus were planted the seeds for Timewise Foundation, the successful non-profit she runs that strives to help individuals achieve flexibility in the workplace without compromising their careers. What initially began as an initiative to help unemployed women take their first steps in the job market has since spanned out into a vast online marketplace that matches up highly skilled candidates seeking flexible work conditions with employers searching for talent and willing to forego the traditional requirement of 40 hours a week in the office.

For conceiving this rather revolutionary idea that challenges conventional workplace wisdom, Mattison was last week honored by the British branch of the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) with a special award. The “Commitment Award” recognizes individuals for their outstanding commitment to charitable causes in various fields, among them corporate social responsibility and women in the workplace. Mattison was flown to Israel to receive the award, together with the other winners, in an event sponsored by the Israel-based Tamares Group.

“The whole 9-5 Monday through Friday thing is suited for men with wives,” said the 45-year-old London-based mother of three, in an interview with Haaretz during her visit. “Now in Britain, you’ve got this huge problem with all these businesses asking themselves what happened to all the women? Where have they gone? So we’ve trained them and educated them, we brought them on board, and then they hit their 30s and they’re leaving the workplace.”

To make matters worse, she says, even employers who are willing to allow their workers more flexibility prefer not to flaunt their generosity. “Many people who get to work a four-day week, what they’re often told is to leave a jacket hanging on their chair so that people think they’re in a meeting,” she notes.

Changing this mindset has become Mattison’s mission in life, and others are taking note. She and her co-founder and partner Emma Stewart have already been lauded as ‘Business Heroes’ by Management Today magazine and included in a list of “Britain’s Top 50 Radicals” compiled by The Observer newspaper. She’s also been named an “Entrepreneur to Watch” by Real Business Magazine.

Her main challenge, says Mattison, is convincing employers and recruiters that they also stand to benefit from flexibility. “The idea is that if you’re a company with 30 people, you didn’t need to have a finance director five days a week, and if you’ve got 30,000 pounds to pay for one, why not hire someone great worth 60,000 pounds and get that person to work half time rather than hire someone mediocre full time at 30,000?”

Although the new initiative targets both men and women, Mattison says that most of her candidates seeking flexible work conditions are women. More than 60,000 candidates are registered on the site, which serves about 4,000 businesses in Britain, most of them in the London area. “At any one time, we’re filling 150-200 jobs,” she notes.

Since it’s a social business, Timewise invests all its profits from recruitment commissions back into the foundation to help women out of work find employment.

A well-kept secret, Mattison discloses, is that about 20 percent of those in Britain’s top tax bracket work part-time, among them high-powered lawyers, banker and executives. “But they’re not talking about it because they don’t want to seem less ambitious. For me, though, making these stories public will do more for cracking the glass ceiling than any sort of mentorship programs or childcare subsidies.”

Mattison, who grew up in Liverpool, spent a year in Israel as a young adult on a one-year program. She studied psychology at Oxford University and lives today with her family in East Finchley.

The other WIZO award winners were the UK KPMG team, recognized for its work with senior citizens; the writer and journalist Chas Newkey-Burden, recognized for his efforts to defend Israel online; and the entrepreneur David Altschuler, recognized for his various initiatives across the globe for both Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

Julian Dodd