Early morning keynote speech yesterday at the first ever awards by Workingmums – Top Employer Awards 2010. After the speech came the awards and then a Q & A panel.

Congratulations to Gillian Nissim who set up Workingmums. As often happens – experience is a great teacher. And when Gillian became a mum – having worked in many different corporations – she saw the need for better work practises so that companies didn’t just lose their talented women because of babies. And women didn’t lose their jobs – just because at certain times of their lives – they couldn’t work the long hours they perhaps had before. Thus Workingmums was born – 

And – congratulations to all the employers whose work practises like flexible working meant that they were short listed for an award. Flexible working is a phenomenal advantage to companies – but somehow we as a nation have not yet got it.

And thanks too to the sponsors – Deloitte and RBS! I am very keen to encourage corporates to get more and more involved in supporting all efforts in this direction.

But businesses who adopt flexible working do so to improve their bottom line – they are not charities. Companies like BT, for example, who introduced flexible working twenty years ago have seen great business benefits: 20% reduction in absenteeism, £500m saved on property costs and productivity up 30%. But whatever size your business – it is common sense (let alone a proper way to behave) to treat your staff well. 

Anyway – there were five categories – and Accenture won the best over all ‘Top Employer’ award. They won because they not only encourage flexible working, but because they walk the talk – and board members DO take days off to go to school plays etc. That leadership – saying it is OK right at the top of a firm – to put family first is really important too (including men!).

Currently, parents with children under 16, parent of children with disabilities and some carers are allowed to ask their employers for more flexible working.  Ed Davey f(Dept of Business) and I are currently working on the coalition commitment to extend the right to request flexible working to all.

We hope by normalising it (for too long flexible working has been about women) we can lift some of the stigma that discourages men from asking for it – leaving caring to be shared more evenly.

We are also looking into a system which will encourage shared parenting – for example by introducing flexible parental leave which will allow mothers and fathers to divide their time off how they see fit.

But we are doing all this consulting with employers. The time of  centralisation, top down targets and bureaucratic procedures is now over. This will only work if business is in the driving seat supported by the coalition.

That is why Workingmums and the awards yesterday are so important. There are employers out there who are leading the way in terms of flexible working and it was very nice to see them rewarded and acknowledged for their successful efforts.