Can businesses be flexible friends?

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Flexible working is a valuable tool for both employer and employee – but do we really need Government legislation?

That was the consensus after the latest Leaders’ Lunch event organised by Lancashire Means Business.

The big debate: From left, Kimberley Barrett-St Vall, Tony Raynor, Andrea Challis, David Nowell, Gill Mathison, and Norman Tenray

The big debate: From left, Kimberley Barrett-St Vall, Tony Raynor, Andrea Challis, David Nowell, Gill Mathison, and Norman Tenray

A group of business leaders gathered at Napthens solicitors’ Blackpool office to discuss legislation regarding flexible working and the expected introduction of shared parental leave.

The latter could mean that a man can take up to six months off work after becoming a father.

Napthens’ employment lawyer, Kimberley Barrett-St Vall was joined by company directors Andrea Challis, of Partingtons Holiday Centres, and Gill Mathison of Blackpool-based Create Construction.

Also on the panel was Norman Tenray, managing director of the Obas Group based at Longridge; and Tony Raynor, of Blackburn-based Abbey Telecom.

Kimberley Barrett-St Vall explained that from April this year, subject to eligibility criteria, all employees would have the right to request flexible working hours.

From next year – and the details were still being finalised – it was proposed that there should be shared parental leave. At the moment, a mother was entitled to up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave and the father also took separate paternity leave. The proposal was that, from next year, a couple could share the 52 weeks’ leave between them.

Tony Raynor said that in his experience, if a company was not flexible, it would lose staff. He questioned whether there needed to be a change in the law to make it happen.

“A lot of this is to do with common sense,” he said. “I don’t think we need the regulations to enforce it.”

Andrea Challis said flexibility also depended on the employee’s role. If a person was, for example, a personal assistant, an employer would expect that person to be there five days a week, and not part-time.

Kimberley stressed the law only gave employees “the right to request” flexible hours.

Norman Tenray said the big concern to employers was how the law would be interpreted.

He said: “It has to be marketed very carefully. If you are a good employer you are already subject to a wide range of legislation. What we need is less legislation and red tape to allow us to move forward.”

He said companies like his already were flexible and supportive of all its staff, and changes in the law could be open to “misinterpretation”.

Tony said he felt the changes were probably aimed at larger companies. Smaller companies like his were already flexible and supportive, otherwise they would not retain staff.

Gill Mathison said smaller companies were already pretty lean, and could not make massive changes to their staffing arrangements. She said an example of her company’s attitude to flexible working was to make life easier for employees who faced a long commute.

“Our skill set in terms of the people we attract isn’t necessarily in our area. Some people travel an hour, or an hour-and-a-half. We have to be flexible to retain staff. You have to think outside the box. We looked at having a serviced office in Manchester – that’s our way of flexible working.”

Andrea said the problem was that if you took two people at a small company, and one was allowed flexible working and other wasn’t, it would create tension.

Gill agreed, and said working from home for instance could be seen by some as an “easy day”, and had to be managed well in order not to create resentment among others.

On the subject of shared parental leave, it was pointed out that the Institute of Directors had described the idea as “a nightmare”, placing a massive financial and administrative burden on the employer.

Andrea said her company employed couples – some of whom worked as a team. She wondered what would happen if they were both entitled to leave at the same time.

Tony said he found men were very unsure about what their entitlement was in terms of parental leave.

Kimberley said the changes could be addressing the fact that the woman was in many households the main breadwinner. The family unit could not afford for her to take too much time off, so therefore a couple was being given more options.

Gill said small companies had grown used to coping for a couple of weeks when a new parent had time off. But the prospect of an employee taking various chunks of time off throughout the year would create some problems in terms of staff cover.

Norman said he had an employee whose wife had given birth, and the employee had just wanted to take a day off a week.

That flexibility may be removed if the law was changed so that employees had to take leave in “blocks”.

Turning to the problem of getting cover during an employee’s absence, Gill pointed out that finding good freelance cover was an issue, with freelancers not having the commitment of a permanent member of staff.

The panel agreed that keeping a good employer/employee relationships was key to running a successful business, but there were doubts about how staff would expect it to work in practice.

And they wondered how larger companies would view flexible working issues as sympathetically as those around the table.