FLEXIBLE working and ‘inclusive’ business practices can drive up profits as well as create a happier workplace culture.

That was the message from a conference which discussed ‘smart’ working and workplace diversity.

The Workforce South conference, organised by an action group of the support organisation Business South, brought together HR professionals, chief executives and business leaders from across the south.

Several speakers spoke of the costs associated with inflexible working practices.

Ursula Taverner, consultant and founder of the blog Mumbelievable, said more than 54,000 women are lost from the talent pool every year because of the competing demands of work and childcare.

Flexible working opportunities helped both working parents and the wider workforce, she told the event at Southampton’s Best Western Chilworth Manor.

Claire Williams, director of inclusion and diversity at Inclusive Employers, said gender-neutral companies were 15 per cent more likely to outperform competitors, and that this figure rose to 35 per cent when the workplace was also technically diverse.

She said businesses needed to reduce bias in hiring processes and welcome those from all backgrounds, otherwise talent would remain untapped.

Dr Zara Nanu, chief executive of pay gap consultant Gapsquare, said all businesses should regularly review HR and payroll data to ensure they had a complete picture to act on.

Anthony Fitzpatrick, employee relations and global employment policy lead at insurer Aviva, said inclusive and flexible working practices had boosted the business’s reputation and employee engagement.

He said staff were encouraged to ask themselves “How does my role express our company values?” and say when those values were not being lived.

Mark Smith, chief executive of Southern Coop, said the way businesses treat their staff relates to social concerns and could contribute towards UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Shirley Anderson, the chair of Business South’s Workforce South action group, which organised the conference, said: “Our annual Workforce South conference isn’t the only way to discuss best practice with other HR professionals.

“All Business South members – known as ‘champions’ - are given the opportunity to join Workforce South and other action groups to collaborate and to promote business in the south.”

To find out more about becoming a Business South champion and its Workforce South Action Group, visit businesssouth.org/