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Employers must recognise that business and staff needs are changing - and flexible working makes good business sens...
Employers must recognise that business and staff needs are changing - and flexible working makes good business sense, says Jeanette McGarry

Last September the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers sponsored me to attend the International City Managers' Association Conference in Philadelphia and this year the ICMA have invited me to lead a workshop on work/life balance.

My credentials include being a mother of four children. I have always worked full-time and went back to work when my children were six weeks old.

My parents looked after my children during the early years and latterly my husband took the brave decision to become a househusband.

Whenever possible I try to introduce my two worlds to one another. For example, my eight year old helped me and my cabinet councillor evaluate Solihull's play areas on a Saturday morning.

The work/life balance programme is still big news, especially following the recent changes in legislation.

When I told my management team that I had been asked to lead on work/life balance, they laughed. This is partly due to the hours we work and the number of evening meetings I attend but also, I think, due to the agenda councils are facing. Priorities are changing. Among job-seeking graduates work/life balance is the number one requirement, having overtaken salary. A recent Department of Trade & Industry survey found one third of jobseekers would prefer to work flexibly than receive an extra £1,000 pa.

In Solihull MBC, we recently appointed our first work-life balance co-ordinator. This has been a step towards ensuring we take better care of our staff and that businesses in the borough are made aware of the benefits it can provide.

We can learn a lot from other councils and other sectors. By introducing a work/life plan BT has made seen absenteeism reduced by 20%-40%, productivity increased by 20%-40% and time spent with customers increased by 36%.

We all know work/life balance means different things to different people but, in the main, it is about adjusting working patterns to achieve a better balance. At Solihull MBC, we have flexi-time, staggered hours, time off in lieu, job sharing, term-time working, home working and support through a childcare referral service. None will succeed if they do not take into account the needs of the individual and those of the business.

Smart businesses are recognising the changing needs of their staff and the value of retaining them. Within the next three years, it is estimated three in five people will be carers. One in six workers are women with children under 16 and some one in three women do not return to work after maternity leave - think of the cost implications for a business.

Both men and woman have caring roles at home. Lone fathers are increasing and fathers are spending more time with their children, even though fathers in Britain still work the longest hours in the European Union.

People are living longer and fewer babies are being born. In 2010, the workforce will have 1.3m fewer 25 -35 year olds, some 3m more workers over the age of 35 and 12m over 65. This equates to 40% of the future workforce being aged 45 plus and, over the next 10 years, 85% of the increase in the workforce will be through women.

It is important to remember business is changing. More are required to operate on a 24/7 basis and, as employers, we have to recognise both business and individual needs are changing. At the end of the day, it makes business sense to ensure our greatest asset - our staff -can strike a healthy balance and decide whether they want to live to work or work to live.

Jeanette McGarry

Corporate director, community services, Solihull MBC

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