· 1 min read · Features

The case for flexible working is clear-cut

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Why is it that the unassuming words 'flexible working' provoke the type of fevered debate usually only associated with issues of national concern such as health or tax?

Remember this? "Extending the right to request to parents of older children will allow families to take priority when decisions are made." Straight from the mouth of the then business secretary John Hutton back in May when the Government accepted the recommendations made in the review by Sainsbury HR director Imelda Walsh that the right to request should be extended to all parents of children up to 16.

Five months later? New business secretary Peter Mandelson cools on the idea as he looks "at the appropriateness of new regulations that are due to come into force" in the name of helping small business cope with the deteriorating economic picture.

Meanwhile, over at Tory party HQ the issue is hot, hot, hot. In October shadow minister for women Theresa May told top City law firms that an economic downturn was precisely the time to look at flexible working. Meanwhile, at a parliamentary symposium supported by HR, shadow families minister Maria Miller reiterated support while Tory leader David Cameron has revealed plans to extend the right to request to parents with kids under 18.

So what does the hitherto silent Walsh think of all this? In an exclusive interview with HR she says she sticks by her recommendations and believes businesses need to move away from the idea that flexible working is all about part-time work and women. Quite right too, for the case for flexible working is one of productivity and engagement. And, just for good measure, it can save you money too.

Let's look at the evidence. Speaking at our HR Leaders Forum, Best Companies managing partner Wayne Clark said flexible working produced an 11% increase in staff engagement. Meanwhile, BT's director of people and policy Caroline Waters showed how it lowered costs and increased customer service.

In difficult economic times businesses need to think more creatively about their people strategies. Flexible working offers a possible alternative to redundancy and ensures organisations are ready when recovery comes. Debate over.