Monday, May 11, 2009

MPs' Expenses - A solution

The topic of MPs' expenses has gripped the nation, or certainly given the media a timely distraction from depressing news about the recession. It seems to me that the whole idea of paying for second homes is out of line with 21st century working practices.

The argument for the allowances is that MPs have to work in two places and therefore need two homes. This might have been true in the 19th and maybe the 20th Centuries when they had to meet constituents face-to-face and also be present at Westminster. But now people can contact their MPs over the phone, meet them face to face on Skype, send them questions by email, contact them through facebook and comment on their blog. MPs are teleworkers and should be able to work satisfactorily from one base with occasional visits to the other when they have to be face-to-face.

Looking at the Commons chamber on an average day, the argument that MPs need to be ther for the debates is clearly rubbish. Except for times like PM's questions or a really close vote very few MPs are present. When they are in the building they listen for the division bell and then rush into the chamber to vote, usually following instructions from the whips.

So what we need is an Internet age work pattern for MPs. They should be able to vote remotely, engage in debates over the Internet and should keep their constituents informed by having a blog. Using video, they can hold face to face consultations and meetings and avoid excessive travel as well as second home allowances. There are plenty of people who do real jobs who have to travel to customers but who don't get a second home allowance.

But the real indication that Gordon Brown and other MPs of his generation are out of touch with the modern workplace came from his solution to the problem. He proposed an attendance allowance which would be paid for every day that an MP came into the palace of Westminster. This is 19th century thinking about work. It assumes that people can only work when they are in a particular building and completely ignores the way many people, including MPs, now organise their working lives.

To add insult to injury, Gordon Brown chose to make the announcement about this clever solution on YouTube. This is one of the new media that allow people to communicate without having to be in the same place and is an icon of 'Generation Y' who don't see why we have these antiquated work practices that are based on presenteeism.

So we can continue to try to solve the 'allowance problem' by tweaking the payments system, or we can use this opportunity to make a more fundamental change in the working practices of MPs and bring them into the Information Age. Nobody needs an allowance for a second home, because nobody needs a second home. They can have one home and stay in a hotel on expenses for those days they really need to be away. I suggest the government block books the hotel in County Hall across the river from the houses of parliament and uses that. Meanwhile MPs can set an example to the rest of the nation by using technology instead of travelling so much, thus saving the economy a fortune and saving the planet at the same time.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Business Friendly or Family Friendly?

On April 1st in the UK we are extending the legal right to request flexible working from parents of children up to age 6 to parents of children up to 16. As someone who promotes flexible working you might think this is a time for me to celebrate but in many ways I see it as a backward step.

If we introduce rights for parents and we don't give those to other employees what does that tell us about flexible working. It is obviously seen as an employee benefit which is given to parents because they have to manage the conflicting pressures of caring for children and working for a living. It puts it firmly in the 'family friendly' category and associates it closely with maternity leave as another major imposition on business. So it is hardly surprising that many businesses see the new legislation as yet further government red tape designed to help families at the expense of productivity and effectiveness at work.

This legislation also encourages a form of discrimination in the workplace. It says that people who have caring responsibilities should be treated differently from other employees. If there is any flexibility available it should go to them and not to others. It means that employers are encouraged to make a value judgement about the personal lives of their employees, implying that rearing children is a more worthy use of people's time than other activities like playing sports or enjoying the arts. If the new right is given only to parents and carers it can result in resentment and low morale from other employees who feel left out.

But by classifying flexible working as 'family friendly' makes people assume that it is not 'business friendly'. If it is an employee right that has to be forced on employers by legislation it must be something that is a cost to business. Presumably it means that people are less productive, less reliable, less loyal and absent more often? Well, the answer is 'no', 'no', 'no' and 'no'.

All the research into the impact of flexible working practices shows that employees are MORE productive, MORE reliable, MORE loyal and have LESS absenteeism. After all there is no reason why something that is good for employees had to be bad for business. In this case it's a win-win.

People who can get a better balance between home life and work life are likely to be less stressed and to choose working times when they are able to concentrate and feel motivated. If they are able to work at home or closer to home for part of their time they may avoid time-wasting, stress-inducing commuting. It is often the case that the home offers a more productive environment for work without some of the interruptions and distractions in the office. With today's technology and broadband connections many people can do large parts of their job without leaving home.

Employees are also likely to appreciate that their employer is prepared to trust them to manage their working time and repay this trust with more effort and dedication. They are less likely to leave to join another employer and are also less likely to take days off sick. Even if they are not feeling 100% they may be able to do work at home on days they are unable to get to the office.

So any sensible employer will not just implement the divisive new legislation but will recognise that this is an opportunity to implement a win-win solution. Offering everyone the right to request flexible working is not a recipe for chaos but a way of enhancing business productivity. A recent government survey showed the 90% of the employers who have had requests from employees approved 100% of the requests. So people are not being irresponsible but are coming up with solutions that work for them and the business.

At a time of economic pressure we need to increase productivity and also retain our best people. For some businesses this will be the key to survival. If they miss out on the opportunity to use flexible working as a way of combating the recession they just may end up becoming one of the casualties.