My latest article for Freer – a major new initiative from the IEA promoting a freer economy and a freer society.

Over the best part of thirty years before coming into Parliament, I started up and scaled a small business in Birmingham. I did this while combining bringing up four children with doing a master’s degree. Before you roll your eyes and assume this is a manifesto for being a superwoman, it’s precisely the opposite. I’m far from a superwoman, and could not have done any of those things had I been caught in a classic high-level corporate job — particularly in the long-hours culture of the nineties and naughties, with a stressful commute, and an expectation to sit at a desk all day long.

On the contrary, I could only do it because I ran my own business, and was responsible for my own output. I was able to start work before the kids got up, stop to take them to school, and take time off for doctors appointments, parents evenings, illnesses, and holidays — all while managing teams of people in Birmingham and India. Even 20 years ago in Mumbai, before we had the internet working properly, we still found a way. It was just the way we did things — and it worked because it had to. I had no choice. And it was normal for my employees to take the same apporach: when our marketing manager said he wanted to go to Australia for a year with his girlfriend and work from there, I said yes without hesitation.

I spent my career thinking this was the norm, but of course it isn’t. The freedom and flexibility I had was incredibly valuable, and allowed me to give my children the upbringing I wanted for them, to gain further skills, and still to contribute at the highest level to my business. I have also been blessed with a supportive husband, who started the business with me — life would have been totally different had I been a single mother.

Of course, as anyone who has worked this way will know, I was extremely productive even while I was stacking the dishwasher, driving the kids to school, and folding laundry. Those were the times I solved problems and came up with new ideas. So, one of my priorities as a politician has always been to free up others from outdated concepts of how work is structured. And, as our digital lives grow ever more significant, the opportunities to embrace new ways of working are increasing rapidly. It’s disappointing, therefore, that — despite the introduction of legislation aimed to help — flexibility at work isn’t as widespread as it could be. I believe it’s time for a more radical approach to this problem — an approach that can boost flexible working in all its variations. 

The benefits are obvious. For people with children and caring responsibilities, it’s one of the key criteria when thinking about how and where to work. And, broadly speaking, it’s still mainly women who bear the brunt of unpaid work in the home, whether for children or their parents. But for both men and women, of all ages, with or without additional responsibilities, the sense of satisfaction and control from being able to choose when and where to work can be transformational. Work is only one important aspect of life — people want and need to be able to pursue other interests to make up a whole, fulfilled life. If we believe that freedom is a principle worth pursuing, because we believe it is good for people, then surely we should be championing more freedom for people across all aspects of their lives.

The UK is known for its flexible labour market, and this has been at the root of its success in recovering from the recent recession. But too often this flexibility, which is fantastic for employers, doesn’t cut through to employees in a realistic way. In her excellent book, Invisible Women, Caroline Criado-Perez highlights the lack of progress in making truly flexible work a reality for most women, despite well-intended governmental legislation. And if women can’t work as flexibly as they want, their partners and families are affected, too. If women are forced to take a step down from their career, and take extended time out, there will be a knock-on effect on their progression and life-time earnings. Much of the gender pay gap can be explained by the women who leave the workforce temporarily, and then never catch up with their male peers who haven’t faced the same conflicting priorities.

This phenomenon is especially acute for women on lower incomes, or those who are single parents. And, of course, it is precisely these women who are more likely to work in sectors with lower-earning potential, such as childcare, catering, cleaning, and elder care — and who are less likely to have the opportunity to upskill, increase their incomes, or be able to request a flexible working schedule. Women in this group could especially benefit from increased flexibility, to allow them to take time out to retrain for a more lucrative job, without losing pay or benefits.

My call in this essay, therefore, is for the Government to prioritise policies that promote flexible working for everyone. First, it’s important to demolish the argument that this approach isn’t business friendly. I’ve run a small business for 30 years, from starting out with only four employees. And I always recognised that allowing people to take control of their own schedule — whatever the reason they desire to do so — leads to greater productivity for the whole team. Where there’s a will there’s a way to make it work, even in the very smallest teams, and as an employer you are rewarded with career-long loyalty, a culture of high performance and support, and employees who will go the extra mile for you. That manager who spent a year in Australia? He came back to us, despite being headhunted, because he said he would never have the freedom to pursue his dreams with any other employer.

So, while I accept there is always a balance to be struck, I strongly reject that a more flexible approach would lead to increased burdens on business. With dialogue on each side, it’s possible to reach a win-win outcome. But what would we need to change? Let’s start with the easiest wins. Currently, employees can request flexible working. But for many reasons, this won’t always be granted. There are a vast range of flexible working options — the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) lists up to 10 — including part-time hours, compressed hours, term-time-only working, a nine-day fortnight, working from home, annualised hours, and more. But the CIPD study also found that 36 per cent of working parents said that the type of flexibility they wanted was not available to them in their organisation.

And even if the flexibility exists, there are often still barriers to requesting it. My contention is that we could turn this on its head, and require all jobs to be advertised as flexible from day one — unless an employer can show that, for legitimate business reasons, the job can’t be done flexibly. In my view, it’s currently too easy for an employer to say to an employee that ‘business needs’ mean that their specific role can’t be done flexibly. By flipping this around, and putting the onus on the employer, we could unlock true flexibility as a cultural and workplace norm. Shifts in culture are incredibly powerful, and, ultimately, these shifts are what drive real change.

The second immediate reform we need is increased flexible parental leave, with a greater entitlement to paid paternity leave. The uptake of shared parental leave is disappointingly low in the UK, and I believe this is down to a combination of factors — including concerns about loss of income, reducing one’s partner’s maternity-leave entitlement, and becoming an outlier among peers. The paternity-leave period should be beefed up to allow stand-alone paternity leave to be more generous and better paid.

I believe that these two changes, taken together, would benefit the UK economy. We would see fewer women forced to change track after having children. Mothers are still a vast untapped resource, because of the childcare and school-hours conundrum. One study estimated that the economic value to be gained in the UK if professional women were to realise their full potential after a career break — in terms of less occupational downgrading, and working more hours — could be as much as £1.7 billion. If families could choose the flexibility that worked best for them, parents would have the potential to contribute at work while raising their children, rather than having to make invidious choices.