Business benefits of flexible working

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Jennie Willott's speech to the Business Benefit of Flexible Working Conference highlighting the business benefits of flexible working to employers.

Flexible working

Thank you, [Audrey], for your introduction. And thank you Eversheds for hosting this conference here today.

I am delighted to see you all here today. This morning’s briefing is designed to demonstrate the benefits of flexible working we know employers and employees up and down the country are reaping. The government is fully behind this agenda and I hope you leave today understanding why, and with some practical tips on how flexible working might work in your organisations.

Firstly, let me introduce myself. I am the Minister for Employment Relations in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which means I am responsible for employment law in the UK. My department and the Department for Work and Pensions have organised this event because flexible working is central to how the coalition government sees employment in the future.

It isn’t really rocket science to see why the government is supporting flexible working. We find that employers who introduce flexible working achieve tangible improvements to their recruitment, staff retention and overall employee relations. And flexible working is becoming more and more common in the UK. In fact the UK labour market has one of the most diverse range of working patterns in Europe.

We see that employers who offer flexible working are at an advantage straight away when recruiting talent. To attract top talent I see firms actively pushing their openness to discussing flexible working or work/ life balance. Indeed my sense is that many workers nowadays, especially new graduates, have higher expectations and see flexible working as the norm rather than the exception. I think this trend will only continue. So I think employers have begun to respond to that by offering flexible working as another way of attracting the best staff. It is one part of the employment offer, like pay.

Flexible working is also helping employers retain their top talent. All parents will know the challenge of balancing their working lives with childcare. Flexible working arrangements to help with the school run or to fit work around childcare are vital in enabling parents to continue their careers while looking after their children. Employers who discuss flexible working options with parents have a much better chance of finding a solution that means they can keep hold of their best staff. And of course new technology enables this too.

We want to move flexible working further into the mainstream of the labour market. It doesn’t just work for those with caring responsibilities, it can benefit all groups of workers.

Because for employees the benefits of flexible working are obvious. A better chance to strike a balance between work and other commitments. A better work-life balance. And a greater sense of being in control of your working life.

Unsurprisingly this feeds into better employee engagement, motivation and loyalty to their employer. A government survey of employers’ attitude to work-life balance found that the majority of businesses surveyed found flexible working had a positive impact on employee relations and employee motivation. Surveys by the CBI and BCC in the last couple of years have found exactly the same.

You’ll hear today practical case studies of how other employers have utilised flexible working and achieved these benefits. I’d like to mention 2 examples for myself.

You will see around us posters from the government’s GREAT campaign. They are part of a promotional campaign we are running this month to spread the word about flexible working. The poster is of a health insurance company called Healix. They have 150 employees and really champion flexible working through flexible shift patterns, home working, reduced and compressed hours. They see their flexible working offer as a fundamental part of achieving high employee commitment, reduced staff turnover and lower levels of stress.

And as for the larger employers, we heard last week that Deloitte, the accountants, had launched a major new HR policy in their firm to embed flexible working. They are already guaranteeing all their staff a right to request and discuss flexible working, and they are making their annual leave arrangements much more flexible. Flexible working is, as David Sproul their Chief Executive says, “a clear business imperative”.So you will find the government is a firm advocate of flexible working. That is why we are extending the right to request flexible working at the end of this month. That will mean from 30 June all employees will have the right to ask you the manager to consider flexible

working arrangements. There is no requirement to say ‘yes’, but there is a requirement to discuss it and to consider the request properly.

Why are we doing this? Well you have heard why the government supports flexible working. But none of this works if government or anybody else imposes flexible working from above. It defeats the object. In my experience of dealing with employment law one of the important things I have discovered is that the secret is in ensuring there is a sensible and constructive conversation between the employer and employee. That is my objective for the right to request flexible working – it is a nudge, a prompt, to ensure that discussion takes place. If the outcome is that flexible working isn’t going to be feasible for the business, that is fine. But I hope there will be other occasions when the discussion helps identify flexible working arrangements that suit both parties.

Another of the outcomes I’d like to see from our legislation is to remind people that flexible working can be appropriate for all employees. It is true that previous legislation and a lot of the take up of flexible working has focused upon parents and carers. The new right to request flexible working applies to all employees and this reflects my belief that flexible working can benefit employees whatever their age or circumstance.

My colleague Steve Webb MP, for example, will speak in a minute about how flexible working can help older workers to extend their careers by perhaps reducing their core hours. And I would mention young people, entering the world of work for the first time, many of whom might find flexible working a useful way of combining work with further study. In both cases, from the employers perspective, these are methods of widening the talent pool available to you.

Today is an excellent opportunity to find out more on each of these themes from an expert cast of speakers we have for the day. I encourage you to take full advantage and to help yourselves to the information packs that will be available. I would like in particular to recommend to you the guide books to flexible working John Timpson has kindly produced for us here today – and you will of course hear John’s success story in a moment.

I hope you find the morning useful and informative.