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.