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First Women Summit: Flexible working requires a cultural change to work

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During the inaugural First Women Summit the issue was discussed by business leaders including Adnams operations director Karen Hester and Harvey Nash director Carol Rosati.

Bringing together creative renumeration packages, job shares, paternity leave and working from home, the discussion set out to explore a new way of thinking for businesses that want to get the most from their management.

With the debate led by Poorna Bell, executive editor and global lifestyle head at Huffington Post, the overwhelming consensus was a need for cultural change as well as that within an organisation. For Rosati, she emphasised a requirement for flexible working to benefit both sides. “The interpretation is that it just works for an employee, not the business. If you trust people to work as best fits they will be more loyal,” she added.

Echoing the notion that flexible working should benefit everyone, Anne Minor, director at Performance Consultants, noted the greater presence of office-based crèches in the Far East. This, she explained, has allowed many more women to bring children to work, be able to work with greater ease and reach senior management levels over time.

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Technology has been a big contributing factor to the flexible working discussion, with services such as cloud storage, mobile communication and video conferencing meaning that less time needs to be spent in the office to get a job done.

Rosati said: “It’s a two way debate, and is all about an open dialogue. My work-life hours are so blurred, but I measure myself on output and not bum on seat in the office. It’s very important to have trust and mutual respect.”

New government rules introduced in the summer of 2014 mean that all employees who have 26 weeks of continuous employment with the same business are able to ask for flexible work and a “simplified procedure” for making a request. Companies are now required to deal with requests in a “reasonable manner” by assessing the advantages and disadvantages of the application, holding a meeting to discuss the request with the employee and offering an appeal process.

Hester commented during the panel discussion: “We are facing an issue with elderly parents. It is about flexible thinking and cultures of an organisation rather than just childcare. We’ve got senior managers who have to go home and look after parents.”

Rosati added: “The issue is becoming more prevalent as the country becomes older. Although we do have a formal policy, it is more about creating your own work-life balance. The bigger issue is culture, in terms as trust – but we are all adults after all.”

Giving an insight into the way Suffolk-based brewery Adnams has gone about looking at flexible working, Hester said: “We have said that if our staff can find a way of doing things quicker we won’t cut hours or get rid of jobs. We just want it to be more efficient. Adnams likes to make it a two-way process, as what we’ve found with employees in the main is that unless they can see a benefit to the change for themselves they won’t want to do it.”

All panel members touched on the guilt that many women face when it comes to childbirth and either determining how much time to take off or balancing it with a partner. A need to change society culture, and those found in businesses of varying sizes, was emphasised as a crucial ingredient to the flexible working debate.

Shared parental leave law, which largely puts mothers and fathers on a level playing field, has served as one of the biggest changes to the way in which we determine what hours, days and weeks we spend working. For now, the debate continues.

Image: Shutterstock

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