UK: In my opinion - Institute of Management companion Barry Gibson, group chief executive of Littlewoods, ...

UK: In my opinion - Institute of Management companion Barry Gibson, group chief executive of Littlewoods, ... - In my opinion - Institute of Management companion Barry Gibson, group chief executive of Littlewoods, believes that business profits from fami

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In my opinion - Institute of Management companion Barry Gibson, group chief executive of Littlewoods, believes that business profits from family-friendly attitudes.

Surprisingly, five out of 10 employees in the UK have no access to family-friendly working arrangements. Yet many of them have responsibilities for young children or elderly parents that come into conflict with their responsibilities at work. Experience shows that employees distracted by demands at home perform less well at work, but it seems that many of Britain's employers have failed to make the link between productivity and their staff's work/life balance.

Life is about much more than work and we should all have the opportunity to lead full and interesting lives. Companies that recognise and support the work/life balance of their employees gain a committed and innovative workforce, which then provides better service to their customers than their competitors can offer.

Certainly that has been our experience at Littlewoods. We have found that the highest quality contributions have come from employees who feel they have real balance in their lives. And, with more and more customers setting higher ethical standards for the companies with which they decide to do business, we want them to make Littlewoods a positive choice when they go out into the high street, log on to the internet, turn on their television or browse through their catalogues to shop.

I am proud to be the group's chief executive and I am convinced that it is perfectly consistent for us to focus on our customers and profitability, while also living our family-friendly values. We have worked hard to develop policies that have helped us to win this year's Employer of the Year Award and believe these policies to be an essential part of our long-term success.

With the exception of statutory maternity leave, there is little in the way of family-friendly policies enshrined in law. Employers are not required to do much legally. But all this looks set to change, with the Government publishing its own package of family-friendly measures, which will come into force on 15 December. These will boost maternity leave and give fathers and mothers the right to take up to 13 weeks' unpaid leave while their children are under five. But why wait for legislation?

Flexible working is a business reality for us. Some 62% of our 27,000 employees work flexibly. Wherever it is operationally possible, people work part-time, reduced hours, job share and work from home.

It is in the interests of any firm to retain its staff. The costs of recruiting and training a replacement are huge. As just under 65% of our staff are women, maternity provision is an important part of our employee package. We offer up to 40 weeks' maternity leave to employees with 26 weeks' service and 18 weeks to those with less. As a result, 98% of our staff return to work after maternity leave.

We also give prospective parents paid time off to attend ante-natal clinics.

Fathers are entitled to 10 days' paid paternity leave when the child is born and, if both parents work for the company, unpaid maternity leave can be transferred to the father. We also offer adoptive parents a wide range of time-off provisions including paid leave and part-time working.

Absenteeism is another problem for employers. Employees faced with a domestic emergency are often tempted to ring in sick, so we have introduced a five days' family-leave policy. We also offer unpaid career breaks of up to five years.

It is essential to review your employees' needs regularly. Employee surveys provide good feedback. On the basis of our surveys, we have introduced childcare information services in all of our business units, regular holiday play schemes for the children of our Liverpool-and Manchester-based employees, a pre-and post-school club at one of our sites and subsidised places at a nursery in Liverpool.

But making sure policies work in practice can only be achieved by regular top-level commitment. Our executive board formally discusses equal opportunities on a quarterly basis and twice a year we put aside half a day for a strategic committee to consider the issues. Clear communication to all colleagues and leadership by 'walking the talk' helps to ensure that we achieve our intentions.

In its own search for successful family-friendly strategies, the Government should not simply turn to the stick of legislation.

Instead it should offer the carrot of incentives to encourage business to respond positively. These could include tax relief for employers who fund caring provision for their employees; tax relief for employees who fund their own childcare; or making employees exempt from tax where employers fund private childcare places. It could offer a more proactive role to leading family-friendly companies in developing its National Childcare Strategy. It should be promoting mutual understanding between local authorities and private sector employers and should give more publicity to its Childcare Tax Credit so that employees take full advantage of the initiative.

If all employees are to achieve a better work/life balance, there must be a closer partnership between government, business, employees and the voluntary sector. They can then develop workable policies that recognise the needs of business and the conflicting needs of our employees in their everyday lives.

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