T ory leader David Cameron weighed in on the side of work/life balance once again last month with a speech that deserved a lot more coverage than it got. Coming amid the Labour leadership crisis, the anniversary of 9/11 and the unfolding Afghan conflict, it's perhaps not that surprising that Cameron's remarks on flexible working didn't get that much airtime. It's disappointing, though, that it got fewer column inches in the nationals than the Conservative Party's decision to replace its torch with a squiggly tree.
Addressing a conference organised by the work/life balance charity Working Families, Cameron called for a major expansion in the provision of affordable childcare and said he was studying a model of tax breaks and transferable allowances for working parents that might raise the tax-free earnings threshold to £20,000.
These are, of course, pretty meaningless commitments until they become part of an election manifesto, but Cameron has taken a very consistent line on this topic, which suggests he's serious about championing work/life balance if he ever gets into office. Just as importantly, he recognises the business case for it too, referring in his speech to Microsoft, where 85% of employees now work flexibly.
It's this recognition by employers that flexible working makes business sense that will ultimately change attitudes and behaviour, far more than legislation ever will. If it were the other way around, as Cameron acknowledged, we wouldn't still have a gap between men's and women's pay, 30 years after the Equal Pay Act was passed. And leading-edge employers are acutely aware of the power of work/life balance. Writing in People Management, David Smith, people director at Asda, said: "It is vital to have a flexible pool of staff, but this also requires flexibility on the part of the company - as true flexibility comes with trust and will only survive if both parties work together."
Asda has developed a range of flexible leave schemes for its employees. If it didn't have them, Smith says, it would simply have to deal with a whole lot more unplanned absence. "It does introduce complexity - but so do unplanned absence and high staff turnover. The difference is that by being flexible, you manage committed, enthusiastic employees."
There was more positive news about employer attitudes in Pitman Training's annual 'return to work' survey, looking at women going back to work after a career break. In 2005, more than half of those surveyed were concerned about asking for time off work for childcare emergencies, but this year only 11% felt it was an issue.