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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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The Benefits of Flexible Working

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

At an event organised by Orange to discuss the benefits of flexible working and the challenges of delivering a better work-life balance, Meg gave the following remarks.

 

Ideas about ‘work-life balance’ have been rising up the political pecking order for a little while now. It is a little odd, politicians talking about it with so many of us being poor examples of achieving it.

 

It is ultimately a personal choice about how much effort and time you pour into your career, how much into family, friends, leisure etc. Every individual’s circumstances vary according to temperament, environment and circumstances. No ‘one size fits all’.

 

Governments can’t force people into some ideal work-life balance, nor should they. But Government can help to set the tone, change the rules, enabling people to make choices based on their own priorities.

 

On the work side of the equation there are some possibilities:

  • part-time work,  
  • flexi-time: choosing when to work an agreed amount of hours,
  • compressed hours: working agreed hours over fewer days, 
  • staggered hours, job sharing, and working from home,
  • and any of the above in any combination!  

Individuals may well use these to arrive at a working life that suits, be they parents, carers or have other responsibilities. Or indeed, they want to garden, cycle around Lincolnshire, or write the novel that bubbles away in their head. The important point is that having options empowers, gives people control over work and their time. When people feel they are in control they are happier - and increased staff morale is of significant benefit to the workplace.

 

Enabling State

The Third Work Life -Balance  Employee’s Survey[1]  conducted early in 2006 has found high levels of employee satisfaction and a significant increase in the availability of most flexible working arrangements since 2003. In all, 87% of employees said they were either satisfied or very satisfied with their current working arrangements - up from 81% in 2003.

 

The law about flexible working was introduced in 2003, enabling parents with a child under 6, or a disabled child under 18, to make a request for flexible working. It placed a duty on employers to consider a request seriously, and only reject them for good business reasons. It has been a tremendous success, enabling many people to change their working patterns to suit their particular circumstances.     

 

Also in 2003 we introduced 2 weeks paid Paternity Leave, recognising that fathers are parents too. In a recent survey 7 out of 10 fathers said they would like to be more involved in childcare. Progress is being made - between 2002 and 2005 fathers claiming they had access to flexi-time rose from 22% to 54% - and the use of flexi-time by fathers trebled from 11% to 31%. 

 

The Women and Work Commission Report, published in February, confirmed that women are in low paid part-time jobs that do not make the best use of their skills. It asserted that if we remove the barriers to women working in occupations traditionally done by men, and increase women’s participation in the labour market, it could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion or 1.3% to 2.0% of GDP.  

 

Our response to this was published in September. It recognised the importance of helping women to have the opportunity of a job with prospects in order to better build and balance a career.

 

In our response we included:

  • a  £500k fund to increase the availability of quality part-time work,
  • a programme of exemplar employer initiatives in partnership with Opportunity Now - we have nearly 100 signed up so far and more joining all the time,
  • recommended that employers ensure their managers are trained on flexibility issues, and
  • recommended to trade unions that their representatives are trained to promote flexible working. 

For Carers

Another group whose lives can be positively affected by the opportunity for flexible working are ‘carers’. Most people are now likely to care for another adult at some point in their lives, due to changing demographics, an ageing population, smaller families and different family structures. At present there are about 4.4million carers of working age, which is between 16 and 64 years of age, with around 300,000 taking on a new caring responsibility every year.

 

Evidence shows that once carers give up work completely, they tend to remain out of work for several years. In one survey, 7 out of 10 carers under 50, and 8 out of 10 of those aged 50 to 60, had given up their jobs because of their caring responsibilities. Many carers feel they are forced to give up work due to the lack of flexible employment.

 

We have developed the National Carers Strategy with carers and the organisations that represent them. Having more flexible work opportunities will help those who want to work; this can only be a benefit to those involved.

 

Benefits to Business

Getting the right work-life balance for employees makes good business sense; it can be a win-win situation.  

 

Some of the advantages of flexible working:

  • staff are more highly motivated,
  • there are lower levels of absenteeism,
  • less staff turnover, which leads to lower recruitment and training costs, and
  • skills are retained within the organisation.  

So flexible working is also smarter working - a practice that is integral to a modern economy.  It increases productivity, competitiveness and helps the economy perform better in the global marketplace -so we’re all better off. 

 

Advances in technology make it easier for employers to adopt more innovative ways of working.  The Government’s Digital Strategy has done a good job in helping more people to have access to these technologies. 

 

Over 99% of households in the UK[2] can access broadband, giving us the opportunity to work from home. In addition the culture of the workplace is changing, but perhaps too slowly. We don’t need to sit at work at our desk every day of the week. We can log on at home, check e-mails and then take the children to school, or an elderly relative to ‘silver surfing’ class.

 

Broadband is creating a more flexible working environment for employees, enabling them to conduct business anywhere just as efficiently as if they were in the office. It has benefits right across the board - for businesses and their employees, as well as environmental and social advantages. We need to do more to encourage employers to offer flexible working opportunities by demonstrating the business case and encouraging them to follow best practice.

 

Ultimately, whether flexible working and the work-life balance gain widespread traction within society depends upon people themselves. Whether they find the advantages they gain in greater family life or more leisure time, outweigh what they feel they give up - money, status, not being there when decisions are made.


[1] DTI Employment Relations Series No 58  - Feb 2006 - Inst for Employment Studies

[2] Connecting the UK - The Digital Strategy  DTI April 2005 p7. para 3


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