Is flexible working a luxury or a necessity? Jo Ind reports on the impact of the recession on women.
Judging by the way the Government is behaving, anybody would think flexible working is a luxury rather than a way of driving businesses forward.
Only last month, at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, the Prime Minister was trumpeting his plans to allow 4.5 million parents to work flexibly.
The plan was to extend the right to flexitime from parents of children under six to all those with children up to 16.
There were also plans to extend paid maternity leave from 39 to 52 weeks.
Now those plans are being put on hold as Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, has ordered his officials to review all policies in the light of what we are now allowed to call the forthcoming recession.
But Midland companies have challenged the idea that an economic downturn can be mitigated through less employee flexibility.
A spokeswoman for Bravissimo, the lingerie, swimming wear and clothing company for bigger women, based in Leamington Spa, says: “During a recession both businesses and individuals have to make difficult choices about how to survive financially.
“For some businesses who need to do so, offering flexible working opportunities to people who want them could enable them to cut staffing or overhead costs without having to make redundancies. For some individuals, the opportunity to work reduced hours or different working patterns may help them reduce their childcare or travel costs as they seek to tighten their belts in order to pay the bills.
“Where these two come together, that means a win-win situation for everyone.”
Bravissimo, which has about 670 members of staff, has always tried to accommodate flexible working requests from employees.
“In fact we recently formally extended a flexible working policy across the whole of our business, enabling anyone in any role to make a flexible working request,” says the spokeswoman.
“People are at the heart of any business’s success – where people enjoy coming to work and being motivated to do their jobs well you have a much better platform for achieving your business’ goals.
“For some people the opportunity of working reduced or different hours makes a huge difference to their work/life balance which often leads to them being more motivated while at work, as well as enabling them to combine working in a job they enjoy with their family responsibilities.”
Jackie Orme, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says postponing the legislation risks doing more harm than good.
“It sends out completely the wrong message,” she says.
“It assumes flexible working is a burden on business, and the kind of charitable extra that can be cut back in tougher times.
“Our research shows that part-time and flexible workers are happier, more engaged with their work, and therefore more likely to perform better and be more productive.
“This is exactly what hard pressed employers need in tougher times.”
For small businesses the response is slightly more complex.
“While they applaud flexibility, they do not think legislation is the key to achieving it.
Denise Craig, West Midlands policy manager for the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “The unique selling point for small businesses is their flexibility and their adaptability.
“They tend to care for their employees anyway and don’t need rigid legislation in order to be able to do that.
“The problem with legislation is that it can actually make it harder for small businesses to be able to adapt to their employees.
“It’s all very well to have these wonderfully nice things promised by the Government but if the price of that is that the business can not survive, then you have to ask which is worse – to have a job which is not completely flexible or to have no job at all?”
Kay Cadman, director at Core Marketing, a Birmingham PR, design and marketing firm, agrees.
There are 20 people in the company, which is run by three women. Kay is pregnant and will be the first of the directors to have a child.
“Our team is young so not many have children,” says Kay, “but where they do, we want staff to be able to get home to read to their children and go to sports days, that kind of thing.
“That happens naturally. We work in an open-plan office and if we can see someone has too heavy a workload, we help each other out. It’s all part of the same thing.
“We have a father who needs to leave at 5pm on Wednesday, and we encourage him to do that – we tell him it’s time for him to go.
“When I have my baby, it’s going to be a balancing act, but I do know we will all be flexible.”
K ay says that because the team is young, not many have lived through a recession.
“We are saying you have to knuckle down even more, help each other out even more, communicate with clients even more – they are going through the same problems – and be even more flexible.”
The Government’s proposed legislation would apply to both men and women, though it is likely to be women who would benefit most as traditionally they bear more of the responsibility for childcare.
Peter Luff (Con Mid-Worcestershire) says it would be wrong for the economic downturn to be an excuse to disadvantage women.
He is the chair of the Commons Business and Enterprise Committee which recently held a debate on the findings of an inquiry into the gender gap in the workplace.
It revealed women still found it hard to break into some professions than men for a range of reasons.
“The economic challenges might be used as an excuse to play down our commitment to equality and fairness in the workplace. That would be wrong,” he says.
“There is still a significant gender pay gap.
“It has closed somewhat, but the most recent estimate is that the average pay gap between men and women is about 17.2 per cent.
“I want to emphasise that it is not just the women who are subjected to discrimination who pay a price. We all pay a price.
“The abilities, enthusiasm and talents of women are crucial to our economic success.
“If we want to compete globally in the world, we have to maximise our use of every resource we have.
“One such resource is those clever and able women who are not being allowed to contribute to the economy or to the society of which they are a part to the extent that they could.”
Turning the tables, it could be that the recession is the perfect opportunity for women to really come into their own.
Jane Ainsworth, director with Willoughby Public Relations, based in Birmingham, says: “Over the past few decades women have worked harder than ever to get their seats round the boardroom table and none of us are going to give them up without a fight.
“Our scientifically proven ability to multi-task makes us the perfect ally in a difficult market.
“We get more done in less time and, as time is money, what could be better than that?”
Jane says the market will actually demand a more flexible workforce.
“On a less positive note, most research shows we women are cheaper too and that should hold us in good stead for the short term at least,” she says.
“Women spend a lot of time sorting out problems caused by men and I suspect this will be another one!”