There has been a lot of discussion this week about the virtues of flexibility for parents, and it is right that there is.
Like all people who run a business, I think flexible working can be brilliant. I certainly work flexibly. This week I took a few hours off one afternoon to watch my son’s swimming gala. If the situation is reversed, and an employee comes to me with a request to leave earlier a couple of days a week so that she can pick up her child from school, as one did recently, we sit down, discuss moving her hours around, and I say fine.
I take this approach with all of my staff, both men and women. If they need to alter their working patterns to take account of their children I talk to them, look at how we can work around it, and, by and large, say yes. This is the only sensible way for any business to manage its employees if you want to keep good staff you have to be accommodating.
In some cases employers can go even further. Large companies have the opportunity to formalise flexible working policies. O2, for example, offers parental leave of up to 13 weeks before a child is five years old to be taken when the parent wants. They have also trialled a “Working Families Contract”, which allows groups of up to four parents to split shifts between them to balance their childcare needs. Others have created specific perks for parents, such as Asda, which has a special “first day of school” leave day for its employees.
These schemes are appreciated by staff and show that employers clearly understand the benefits in terms of motivation and loyalty that come from being willing to adjust to parents’ needs. For smaller firms, flexible working is much more likely to be an informal policy, to be considered on a case-by-case basis. These employers would like to approve all the requests they receive, but they have fewer staff overall, and so are less able to cover the gaps.
This is where I disagree with Nick Clegg’s concept of flexibility he announced in a blaze of publicity last week.
For me, flexibility requires both parties to be prepared to adapt to each other’s needs. He, on the other hand, thinks that only the employee needs flexibility. He has seen an issue that it is difficult to balance the competing needs of your children and your career and reached for the nearest tool at his disposal: the indiscriminate cudgel of regulation.
His solution is to extend the right to request flexible working to all employees, whereas previously it only applied to parents of children under 16.
You may be thinking that it was surely wrong that any workers were forbidden from requesting flexible working, as the name of the regulation suggests. This is of course nonsense. Employees have always been able to ask for more flexible hours. The “right to request” does not change this it is, instead, a lesson in needless bureaucracy.
The right to request instigates a series of letters and meetings between employer and employee which all have to happen according to fixed timescales. Requests to work flexibly can only be rejected on certain, defined grounds, and employees are able to appeal. This absorbs a huge amount of management time for what should be a simple conversation.
Worse than this, if employers make a single error in handling the needlessly prescriptive process, they can be taken to an employment tribunal.
How on Earth does this make it easier for businesses and their staff to set up flexible working arrangements?
Mr Clegg should, perhaps, instead have listened to the members of the Institute of Directors , the vast majority of whom operate flexible working policies for their staff. When asked recently, 56pc said that if the speed and reliability of broadband across the country were improved, they would be able to let more staff work flexibly.
There is a broader lesson here. Politicians are quick to jump to a regulatory solution, overstating benefits, understating costs to business and ignoring other approaches.
The Deputy Prime Minister also announced this week that parents would have greater flexibility to split leave between them after they have had a child.
I thoroughly support the desire to make it easier for fathers to spend more time with their child in its first few months and to smooth the transition back into work for women. But having parents swapping back and forth, taking a week or two here or there will be very hard for many firms to manage. Again, the burden of flexibility is one-sided, falling only on the employer.
Regulation in this area nearly always creates unintended consequences. I recently spoke to a group of IoD members who raised issues with maternity leave.
One member told us how a member of staff on maternity leave revealed with only one month left that she would not be coming back, and was fully within her rights to do so. By then, the company had spent 11 months training up her maternity cover, who had now moved on because they had expected the original employee to return. The company had to start from scratch, losing two experienced members of staff and having to go to the trouble of recruiting and training a new one.
Uncertainty is only part of the picture. This same member admitted that she was now seriously concerned about taking on more women. As a small business, with, say, 10 staff, losing one employee unexpectedly can be hard to deal with, but losing two, or even three can be catastrophic.
How would any business, or Government department for that matter, cope with the sudden departure of 10pc or 20pc of its workforce? To complete the comparison, they would also have to leave the vacancies open in case staff returned, but with no guarantee of that happening.
Businesses understand the needs of modern working families. They value and want to retain good staff. It is time that Government recognised that regulation is the most inflexible tool there is, and started treating companies and their staff like adults.
Ian Dormer is chairman of the Institute of Directors