‘Dear Colleague’, the e-mail from the Cabinet Office Events team read, ‘you are invited to hear the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg give a speech on women and economic growth. There will be an opportunity to ask questions. Date and Time: Tuesday 13th November 2012 08.30 am arrival for a 09.00 am start. Venue: Central London tbc (for security reasons we will provide you with further information on confirmation of your attendance)’.
Well how could I refuse? I’m committed to and passionate about flexible work and helping women to fulfil their career ambitions whatever their family situation – and, I must admit, that last bit about secret location for security reasons piqued my interest. Perhaps it was because I’d just watched Skyfall and was hoping for some James Bond-like security men or maybe it was the thought of being in an exclusive group of people in the know. Whatever the reason, I sent back my acceptance immediately.
I run my own business, Lexington Gray, and work extremely flexibly – it would be odd if I didn’t – Lexington Gray is a flexible work consultancy. Working flexibly does not necessarily mean that I work reduced hours, in fact far from it – I often work at my computer at home once my children have gone to bed until the small hours – but it does mean that I normally do the school run in the morning – in Guildford. Attending an early meeting in Central London is not impossible but it does require some organisation and calling in of favours on my part.
My 13 year old daughter was very happy with the sleepover at a friend’s house that I had arranged for her – my 11 year old son was less impressed with the arrangements that I’d put in place for him. However, like me, he was easily persuaded by the Deputy Prime Minister’s name on the letterhead and the secret location for security reasons even if the subject matter of the meeting failed to impress him.
So, children taken care of and husband (who finds it hard to see how flexible work fits into busy client-facing teams in a professional services organisation) safely away at a conference in Australia (while also closing a deal in London on his blackberry and pitching for more work on a conference call back to the UK – how’s that not working flexibly?). All I had to do was get myself up to Central London and sit back and relax as the Deputy Prime Minister set out the changes that will extend the right to request flexible working hours to all employees “as soon as parliamentary time allows” -well yes, if you consider Putney Central London.
Nick Clegg chose to make his speech at Third Door (a work hub that offers flexible workspace with an onsite flexible daycare nursery) it’s a great concept (I wish there was one in Guildford) and if you live in Putney and have need of such a service you should definitely check it out (http://www.third-door.com/). The venue worked well with the subject matter of the speech – and probably suited him rather well given that he lives locally – but for anyone having to commute into or across London (and most of the audience probably had an avid interest in the content of the speech because they are looking for help with balancing work and family – though admittedly I’m making a massive assumption here) it wasn’t easy to get to – and the timing of the speech was brought forward (presumably to give Mr. Clegg time to get across London so that he could participate in Women’s Hour on the radio later that morning).
Suffice to say that once I’d endured a cramped journey on a packed commuter train with my nose rather too close to someone else’s armpit for comfort (thankfully it was the start of the day not the end!) and a fifteen minute walk from the nearest tube, I wasn’t feeling particularly warm towards Mr. Clegg and was thinking negative thoughts about the nature of the changes that he was set to announce…..and then he started speaking.
I’m not going to go into detail about the changes he announced to parental leave, flexible work and the cost of childcare– there’s no need – you can read the whole of his speech on the Cabinet Office Website (http://www.dpm.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/news/greater-equality-stronger-economy-speech-deputy-prime-minister) and you should do so – it’s a good speech. I am, however, going to tell you how very impressed I was by his delivery of the speech and his handling of the questions afterwards. He is clearly passionate about building a stronger economy in a fairer society and sees flexible work and improved parental leave and access to childcare as critical to this. His conviction and integrity shone through and I believed him when he said that he would do all in his power to ensure that the changes announced on November 13th are a stepping stone and that further changes (most notably to paternity leave) will be implemented when the economy is in a better place. He has secured an undertaking that the current changes will be assessed and further changes will be considered as part of a review to be conducted in 2018. He very must sees these changes as an intermediary step in a longer journey that should deliver greater equality in the workplace whatever the demands on the employee’s time from family. Hurrah!
I really did almost cheer when he finished and I wasn’t alone – the first question from the floor came from Sarah Jackson CEO of Working Families (a charity that helps working parents and carers and their employers find a better balance between responsibilities at home and work.) and she offered him a sincere ‘thank-you’ (which very much echoed how we all felt) before asking her question.
There are undoubtedly some who will feel that these changes do not go far enough and there will be others that feel they go too far. For my part, I’m delighted that flexible work was centre stage for once. I know that businesses that operate flexible work policies that are properly managed benefit from increased productivity and profits, retain more staff, reduce recruitment spend and suffer less absenteeism. I also know many employees who would have had to drop out of the workforce altogether had they not managed to find a job that could fit around their other responsibilities. Flexible work really does benefit business, the individual and our economy.
The changes announced in Nick Clegg’s speech extend the right to request flexible work to ALL employees – not just working parents – though an employer can still turn down the request. At Lexington Gray we’re experts in flexible work and in drafting well balanced flexible work requests that are hard to turn down. If you need greater flexibility at work (or you’re just fed up of commuting every day with your nose in someone else’s armpit and want to work from home sometimes) we can help you.
If you are a working parent and need help with flexible childcare and don’t live close to Third Door in Putney, Parental Choice can help you (http://www.parentalchoice.co.uk ). It’s very important when drafting a flexible work request as a parent that you demonstrate that you have considered and put in place proper childcare which is why we recommend Parental Choice to all our candidates.
These changes will not transform the work environment overnight but they should speed along a change in attitude and culture and help to remove the stigma that is often attached to flexible work requests – which is good news for men, for women, for business and for the economy.
Nick Clegg may not be James Bond or look like Daniel Craig but on November 13th he was my hero.