How to improve work-life balance

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The Independent Online

Some companies are happy to let staff work the hours that suit them.

Laws on flexible working for parents weren't designed around the welfare of horses, but Debbie Esslemont, a keen rider whose children are now adults, was keen to seize the chance of a better work-life balance two years ago. She had a proposition for her employers, the Royal Bank of Scotland: "Could I come in two hours later in the winter so I can feed my horses?" RBS, one of the leaders in the field of flexible working, agreed to a trial, which proved successful. Esslemont, the senior manager in the bank's legal department in Edinburgh, now works from 11am to 7pm; the rest of her team works 9am to 5pm.

"I have a good team. They can contact me in the morning and I can deal with work that comes in in the evening," she says. "I asked if work-life balance applied only to those with young children, and they said it didn't. So I made my request."

Since April 2003, workers with children under six and the parents of disabled children under the age of 18 have had the legal right to request flexible-working arrangements. Employers are not bound to grant the request but must at least agree to consider the case for it. Last year, the right was extended to people caring for a dependent relative, and the Government is consulting on extending the measure to the parents of older children.

Ruth Lea, the former head of policy at the Institute of Directors, describes the legislation as "redolent of discredited 1970s feminist ideology" and predicts that it will harm business. British employers are already ahead on the work-life balance agenda, and legislation is an unwarranted intrusion, she says.

Not so, says Trevor Higgins, BT's regional manager for Yorkshire and the Humber. "Flexible working is the right thing to do. It's about balancing the firm's needs with those of the employees and deciding what is best for both."

Of BT's 100,000 employees, an eighth work full-time from home, using broadband to log into the firm's system. Mr Higgins uses his home near Bradford as a base more often than his office. "You have to have a good deal of trust, and it is repaid: flexible working increases productivity by 20 per cent," he says. "You get a range of knock- on effects, such as a retention rate after maternity leave of 99 per cent compared with the average of 49 per cent."

Job-sharing is also becoming more acceptable: two very senior female managers at Credit Suisse have shared their working week successfully for the past year, but job-shares among male managers are rare. "You have to be willing to share the praise and the blame, but it is possible to share a career, not just a job," says Vivienne Duke, the founder of, an internet recruitment agency aimed at people who want part-time work or flexible hours. Her agency will be launched at a conference on flexible working in Leeds later this month.

Duke began job-sharing while working for NatWest 14 years ago. "You have to be very organised and communicate well so the employer gets a seamless service. My work partner and I ran departments and a branch together and had two promotions during the six years," she says. "We worked two days each and took it in turns to do Wednesdays. We worked more efficiently together and were more committed because of the flexibility we had been given," she says.

Some employers allow shorter weeks of longer days, and others provide term-time only jobs to help parents with children at school, says the pressure group Working Families.

Flexible working helps address skills shortages by opening up a new market of talent and has proved a valuable aid to retention, it says. Debbie Esslemont agrees: "I would've had to move back into private practice to earn enough to pay people to look after the horses."

The Jobshare-UK Conference and Exhibition is at the Carriage Works Theatre, Leeds LS2 on 24 April (0113 2341811;