Make Flexible Working Patterns Work For You

Julie Shenkman
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With the end of ‘a job for life’, the ticking of the demographic ‘time bomb’, and the ever-increasing pace of new technology, employers are having to consider a wide range of new working patterns that take account of this rapidly changing work climate.

So what is the government’s position on these new ways of working; and what are the benefits and potential pitfalls for employers to avoid?

What is the government doing?

The government is well aware of the consequences of changing work patterns - not least because they impact on the cost of the state pension to a degree that concerns the government considerably. There have therefore been a number of government-led initiatives in recent years, with more still to come:

• In 2000 the government introduced a Work-Life Balance campaign, and in 2002, Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that ‘More and more British workers are recognising that balancing quality of life and family is as important as a fulfilling career. People clearly want greater control and choice over their working hours but lack the confidence and the knowledge to do anything about it. Stressed workers with frayed nerves cannot perform to their maximum and employers know the damage this can do to commercial success – stress costs British industry £370 million a year. That is why it is down to employers and employees to work together to find sensible work-life balance solutions, which will result in better results, higher productivity and increased commitment. I am determined to get the merits of flexible working onto the business agenda.’

• Well established legislation gives part-timers equal rights to full-timers. Legislation such as the Working Time Directive, for example, sets down rules for minimum holiday and a maximum working week.

• Since 6 April 2003, parents of children aged under six, or disabled children aged under 18, have had the right to apply to work flexibly and their employers have had a duty to consider these requests seriously. Parents have the right to ask for a change in their working hours or their times of work, or can ask to work from home – although this is not an automatic right and the employer can refuse on certain grounds.

• Since 6 April 2003 the government has increased and extended maternity leave and pay, and introduced rights to paid adoption and paternity leave.

• From 2006, the government is bringing in age discrimination legislation. Employers will not be able to recruit, train, promote or retire people on the basis of age, and compulsory retirement ages will be illegal.

Types of flexible working

There are many well-established alternatives to full-time working:

• Part-time working, which can vary greatly in hours worked and pattern of hours.

• Flexitime, which allows staff to choose which hours to work (within pre-set limits), as long as they fulfil the required hours within a set period.

• Staggered hours, whereby, for instance, some staff come in at 8am and leave at 4pm, whereas others start and leave an hour or two later.

• Job sharing, where two staff do the job of one full-time staff member by sharing the work in an agreed fashion.

• Shift working, which enables 24 hour coverage.

• Unpaid leave, e.g. taking a sabbatical for a period of up to a year after an agreed length of service, or taking a career break whilst children are young.

• Working from home, which is much easier in these days of tele-working and computer links.

• Downshifting, where a member of staff agrees to less responsibility for less pay. This can be very useful in the run-up to retirement, and often goes hand in hand with choosing to go part-time.

The benefits (and barriers)

In the past, an employer’s initial reaction to flexible working patterns was likely to be a downright refusal to consider these, on the grounds that it would cost money, be difficult to administer and make work, and that no serious career player would want to work anything other than full-time anyway. Nowadays such an attitude would be seen as short-sighted and counterproductive:

• Staff want a better life-work balance at all ages. Those employers who can accommodate this by allowing flexible working patterns will be rewarded with more loyal staff who choose to stay and are absent less often. The company will have less problems with recruitment. Happier and less stressed employees are also more productive, and this in turn leads to more profits.

• We live in a society where consumers are increasingly expecting their needs to be met 24 hours a day. To satisfy this is impossible without shift working, job sharing, part-time workers etc. Furthermore, machinery can be used to its fullest extent in a workplace where flexibility is built in.

• Half the hours does not equate to half the effort (or half the commitment). Employees with the ability to manage their work-life balance better are more committed, not less. A company that exhibits this commitment to employees’ needs will get and retain talented people who will be prepared to commit their efforts in return.

• An employer who can offer truly flexible working patterns is an employer of choice who will attract the best and most diverse workforce.

Despite these advantages there are still some barriers to be overcome - although these are steadily falling:

• The government is slowly but surely tackling legislative barriers, such as rigidity in Inland Revenue rules which makes it difficult for older people to vary their hours downwards near retirement whilst maintaining a reasonable standard of living. Companies will have to follow suit with the rules of pension schemes being made equally flexible.

• Attitudes must also continue to change. The culture of deciding that older people are unemployable will soon be illegal, but we need the perception of managers and colleagues to move with the times as well. There is still a macho culture in many workplaces, which says that anyone taking career breaks, working part-time, or not putting in very long hours, is not serious about their career. This is short-sighted and wrong but must still be overcome.

How are organisations reacting?

The majority of employers fall into one of three distinct categories:

1. The ‘Proactive Group’. These are leaders in creativity and innovative thinking about how best to engage a quality workforce. In employee surveys they are invariably within the top 100 companies to work for.

2. The ‘Reactive Group’. They know that flexible working is a good idea but tend to react to market trends and pick up initiatives from others. They often provide flexible working through fear of the consequences if they don’t.

3. The ‘Change Resistant Group’. These are often small companies with less capacity (as they see it) for flexibility. They are likely to perceive that it only applies to their female, non-technical staff. They resist the idea because it looks risky and, at face value, is difficult to set up and administer.

These three groups may benefit considerably from the independent experience and expertise available through an external consultant. For example:

• Group 1 may benefit from an objective forum for creating and analysing ideas, providing facilitation, quality assurance and risk analysis - and ideas the organisation may not otherwise think of.

• Group 2 may need practical advice to help with increasing their knowledge and developing the new ideas needed to integrate flexible working into their company culture and ultimately move them into Group1.

• Group 3 may need support to increase their knowledge, work through the risk factors, and in particular to remove their fear of change.

When considering the introduction of new patterns of working, it’s important to get it right. Early pioneers of home working, for example, did not appreciate the dangers of isolation and lack of support of their staff at home, and found that things often did not work out, with home workers sometimes ending up more stressed than in their original workplace. There are, however, ways of increasing the likelihood that flexible working will meet its objectives for both the employer and their staff, which is why it makes sense to get expert advice before introducing new work patterns – rather than to help deal with the consequences if this is not handled correctly.

About The Author

Carole Spiers Group

International Stress Management & Employee Wellbeing Consultancy

Gordon House, 83-85 Gordon Ave, Stanmore, Middlesex. HA7 3QR. UK

Tel: +44(0) 20 8954 1593 Fax: +44(0) 20 8907 9290


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About The Author
Carole Spiers MIHE MISMA Carole Spiers combines three roles of Broadcaster, Journalist and Corporate Manager in the challenging field of stress management and employee wellbeing. Over the past 20 years, she has built up her corporate stress consultancy Carole Spiers Group (CSG), with prestige clients such as Sainsbury’s, Rolls Royce and the Bank of England. Carole is frequently called upon by the national and international media and provides keynote presentations on stress-related issues. Carole was instrumental in establishing National Stress Awareness Day™.

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