They said it would never work…

Today is the first anniversary of flexible working legislation.  Critics have been confounded by proof that a new way of working is great for UK  business.

This time last year, we introduced a new measure allowing parents with young and disabled children to request flexible working. We wanted to help them juggle work and family, while also helping businesses solve recruitment and retention issues.

I’m delighted that on its first birthday today, the new law has proved a real success. New statistics show it is proving popular with both parents and employers. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) of parents with children under six have come forward to negotiate some form of flexible working with their employers, according to a survey carried out by the Office of National Statistics for the DTI. The results mean that around 900,000 new requests have been made across the UK this year.

Employers have responded extremely positively to parents’ requests. They have accepted nearly eight in 10 (77 per cent) of requests made by parents, and have agreed a further 9 per cent with some compromise. This signal of support indicates an emerging maturity in the relationships that today’s bosses have with their staff. It also underpins the fact that flexible working is good for business.

Most employers find they don’t have to dig deep to fund flexible working. A study carried out by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development last October found that flexible working imposes no significant additional costs on businesses – just 1 per cent cited the cost of the measure as a problem. In the same study, 68 per cent of companies said they thought flexible working had had a positive effect on relations with employees.

Our best employers have long realised that flexibility can bring big benefits to their businesses. Flexible working is vital in the war for talent. It makes staff more loyal, motivated and productive; and helps make massive recruitment and retention savings. In 1988, only 6 per cent of women returned to work at Unilever UK after maternity leave. Since the company introduced a decent maternity package, a career break scheme and flexible working, this figure has rocketed to 90 per cent.

But despite the well-known business benefits of flexible working, sceptics still warned of economic disaster when we introduced the new laws last year. A gloomy picture was painted depicting job losses, businesses facing the wall and no one requesting flexible working. Of course, they’re the same people who criticised the National Minimum Wage. They said that would cost a million jobs. Instead, a million and a half jobs have been created since 1997.

More people are in work than ever before – 28.3 million – and included in that total are a record 13 million women.

Making it easier for mothers who want to return to work was one of my key aims, not just because it is fundamentally right, but because, if we lose their skills and experience, businesses lose out too.

It’s been a good first year for flexible working, but there is still a long way to go.

What would I like to see? Certainly, more eligible parents should have the confidence to come forward and raise flexible working with their employers, either informally or using the new law. At the moment, more women are applying than men. Many fathers want to participate in childcare responsibilities, but feel their request to work flexibly would not be taken seriously or that they would become the butt of office jokes.

The debate about flexible working is not over. Still, it is encouraging to see that many employers are extending flexible working to all employees. BT is applying the principle to its entire frontline staff – most of whom are men.

The culture shift that we’re starting to see just one year after the introduction of the new law is both encouraging and exciting. The vast majority of employers and employees are to be congratulated for working together to find practical solutions that suit both parties. Getting flexibility right is essential to supporting happy families and a healthy economy.

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