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Workplace of the Future

Friday, June 16, 2006

The speech below was given at a conference held by the PwC women’s network recently. For details of the network visit:




I would like to thank Tina Hallett for inviting me here to speak to you about “The workplace of the Future”. Unfortunately having a politician talk about the topic of ‘work’ only encourages the cynical amongst you! In my own defence, I can tell you I’ve been an MP for only 5 years, having got 20 years at the workplace under my belt.   


PricewaterhouseCoopers have been one of the key players in promoting best practice to achieve gender equality and diversity in the workplace.  I recently supported the launch of Opportunity Now’s 2006 Benchmarking report, PricewaterhouseCoopers was a case study on how to take action to ensure that flexible working is accepted and valued.


The idea of ‘The workplace of the future’ is an important one. We need to try and understand current trends, make educated guesses, look into the future, and set steps in motion now. We have to do what we can to ensure that UK business can prepare and succeed, for our economy to flourish. The workplace today is nothing like the workplace 30 years ago.  And the workplace today will be different in the future.


It helps enormously in today’s world business environment to have a workforce which can respond quickly to change. Flexible working is important in helping this process, its important for the individual, the company and the UK economy. Demographics and attitudes to work are already changing in the work-force; around 5.4 million employees currently work through some form of flexible working arrangements.


This way of working is good for business because it enables them to draw on a wider pool of skills and talents, improve recruitment and retention rates, and increase staff morale and productivity.  According to the Second Work-Life Balance Survey, 94 % of employers agree that people work best when they can strike a better balance between work and the rest of their life.  Through the Work and Families Bill we hope to extend the foundations for a good, healthy work-life balance to a much wider pool of people. 


Changing Demographics

We know our labour market is becoming older, and more diverse - more women, greater numbers of older people, and more from the ethnic minority population. Government and business alike need to respond to these changes. There has been strong growth in the level of female participation in the labour market over the last few decades - and this will continue. Female employment rates have increased from 42 % in 1971 to around 70 % in 2004.  By 2010, the workforce is set to grow by 300,000 - 80% of this growth will be women.


As the labour market continues to move in this direction, and our economy moves up the ‘value added’ chain, we have to ensure that these new workers are equipped with the right skills


Women and Work Commission

Women still face barriers in employment - our pay is still only 87% of men’s, and mothers are at a disadvantage when returning to work after having children.  This situation needs to change; we have to ensure greater equality of opportunity in the workplace in light of changing demographics. 


The Women and Work Commission was set up to examine the persistent problem of the pay and opportunities gap. They presented their final report to the Prime Minister earlier this year.  During their enquiries they brought together small and big business, public sector, trade unions, education specialists and the voluntary sector. They undertook a detailed examination of the evidence, including commissioning new research, and had an extensive programme to meet women of all kinds across the UK.     


Their report estimated that increasing women’s participation in the labour market, and removing barriers to women working in occupations traditionally filled by men, could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion a year to the British economy.  This is a staggering amount, and we have to make sure that this significant contribution from women is encouraged. We need to remove the barriers that women face and create a more level playing field.


The Women and Work Commission’s report offers a wealth of recommendations, practical and acceptable to all key players.  These recommendations address;

  • the barriers to informed choice at school,
  • combining work and family life,
  • lifelong learning and training, and
  • improving workplace practice.


I congratulate PricewaterhouseCooper on taking a lead role by signing up to be an exemplar company for programmes and pilots proposed in the Women and Work Commission’s report.  PWC will take measures to encourage and support women - including a series of events aimed at recruiting more female graduates, and initiatives such as childcare vouchers to help women returning from maternity leave. I hope that such measures, and others such as providing part-time opportunities at all levels, will soon be normal standard practice across the economy.


Skills Strategy

I mentioned skills earlier, and I will go into a bit more detail now. In a modern fast-moving economy, skills and lifelong learning are vital to enable women to not only pursue, but to make progress, in their chosen career.


The UK economy is facing a skills shortage in various sectors today. There is a clear correlation between sectors experiencing skills shortages, and sectors in which women are under-represented.  An example is the plumbing and construction industry sector, where women comprise of just 1 % of employees. 


Promoting equality of opportunity for all could plug these shortages. Employers would have a wider pool of talent to choose from, and analysis by the Women and Work Commission show that if more women move into these higher-skilled, higher-paid occupations the productive potential of the economy would rise by between £2 billion and £9 billion.  


Government and business need to tackle this situation together. We are working in partnership with employers to help provide their employees with skills through the ‘Train to Gain’ programme. This is being rolled out nationally by the Learning and Skills Council.  This will provide access to high quality, and fully subsidised, training for all low skilled employees up to a first full Level 2 qualifications with support to Level 3.  There will also be a trial that will target women returners, and those with low skills in occupational areas where women are currently under-presented.


Management and Leadership

Management and leadership is one of the UK's significant skills gaps. As a country we have been content for our business leaders to rise like dough. In order to have a chance of responding to the challenges of globalisation, employers will have to invest in their current and future managers. It may not be a surprise to you that only 11 % of top business leaders are women.  Women’s leadership vision and skills are under utilised.  To be successful in the future global economy women’s leadership, talent and skills need to be promoted.


We have set up a new Advisory Panel on Management and Leadership. This Panel will oversee the range of Government support, identify priorities for securing greatest impact, and act as a champion in promoting management and leadership activity with employers.


In addition we have introduced a Leadership and Management Programme for Small and Medium Employers. This offers up to £1000 worth of training and informal support, such as mentoring and coaching, for senior Directors. Management and leadership skills have been identified as a priority for Sector Skills Councils.



It doesn’t take a genius to say that today’s workforce is not structurally the same as what it was 30 years ago. Nor, that it will continue to evolve as demographics and lifestyles change kick-in. Not only more women, but men too, choose to balance jobs with family responsibilities - 47 % of mothers now work flexibly compared to just 17 % in 2002, and triple the number of new fathers now work flexibly.


Government recognises these changes and we are making changes to try and accommodate them - progress has been made. As more women move into the labour market the pressure to address these issues will only increase. It’s up to us to work together and ensure that individuals, and business, are equipped for the workplace of the future. If we can do that our economy will stand a good chance of getting the new jobs that the future will create.

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