Flexible working: part-time, full potential?

Lucinda Fleming [not her real name] is regularly ‘showcased’ as a shining example of flexible working at the central government department where she works. The irony is that Fleming thinks she gets a raw deal: “I didn’t want to return full-time from maternity leave,” she says. “I considered job-sharing, but was told I’d have to find a job-share partner myself. Since there aren’t many people around with the skillset for my job, that wasn’t possible. The only other option they’d consider was part-time, and even then there was a condition – giving up my management role.”

Fleming admits that since returning to work three days a week, she has regained some of her previous responsibility. “But it was me who had to take the initiative. I really had to assert myself. I’ve been offered a promotion too, but only if I return to a four-day week.”

Opposite effect

But what Fleming really showcases, according to sociologists Caroline Gatrell and Cary Cooper, is that flexible working is doing exactly the opposite of what it should when it comes to professional parents of young children.

In their report entitled Work-life balance: Working for whom?, they observe that opportunities to work flexibly rarely extend further than part-time working and are usually more readily available to mothers than fathers. And because physical presence is arguably a prerequisite for promotion to executive levels, it is fathers who continue to climb the career ladder while the mothers continue to be disadvantaged in terms of pay and promotion.

Indeed, figures revealed last month by the Office for National Statistics show that pay differences between women and men peak for women working full-time when they are aged between 40 and 49 – just the age when many women choose to return to work after raising a family.

At least part of the problem, believe Gatrell and Cooper, is that in a market-driven economy, employers will usually seek to find ways of re-shaping worker-friendly policies to employer advantage – quite possibly at the expense of those staff for whom the policies were originally intended.

Mummy track

“Part-time salaries may be paid to workers (often mothers), with full-time responsibilities. At the same time, full-time workers (often fathers) are expected to be ‘flexible’, meaning they are required to work additional, atypical hours for little or no extra pay,” explains Gatrell. She believes that employers are using flexibility as a justification for placing women on the ‘mummy track’ where salary rises and promotion are slower to appear, while at the same time intensifying fathers’ workload.

It’s not always the fault of employers, she says. “A lot of fathers just don’t think about working flexibly, especially at senior levels. But even if they do attempt it, they will often face resistance from colleagues and employers who can neither understand nor accept the paternal desire to reduce working hours so as to improve work-life balance.”

Anyone doubting Gatrell and Cooper’s findings need only turn to a recent study by academics at Oxford University and the University of East Anglia, which reveals that women managers wanting to work flexibly after having a baby are seeing their talents and qualifications wasted because they can only find employment well below their skills levels.

A third of female corporate managers moved down the career ladder after having a child, two-thirds of that number took clerical positions and the rest moved into other lower skill jobs. Consequently, women working part-time have hourly earnings that are on average 26% lower than women working full-time.

Nic Sale, head of diversity at occupational psychology firm Pearn Kandola, believes there are two key challenges for employers.

First, there are the practical issues, such as, how can a woman who’s working a two-day week manage a team? Or, are term-time working or compressed working hours really suitable for all senior positions? Then there are the cultural issues.

“An employer may have the fairest flexible working policy in the world on paper, but if for instance men aren’t encouraged to apply for flexible working, it will never be truly gender neutral,” she explains. “Since men can see for themselves that anything other than full-time working can be a career killer and that you just don’t get promoted, that’s a tough job. It’s also the case that while some companies might be committed to more men working flexibly, the line managers are not.”

Sale thinks HR can help in four main ways:

  • Regularly review how flexibility is working
  • Break the link between promotion and full-time working
  • Provide realistic options
  • Educate the rest of the team to avoid resentment.

Regular reviews

“Ensure that flexible working is reviewed regularly to make sure it is working for both parties,” says Sale. “Make sure that decisions about promotions aren’t always linked to full-time workers – that’s about helping line managers recognise that working flexibly isn’t a sign of lack of commitment. But it’s no good offering a sweetie-shop of opportunities from job shares to home-working if these won’t actually suit every role. Again, that involves a conversation with line managers, preferably when the job description is drawn up. And finally, do some work around the resentment that can follow from one member of the team working flexibly – there needs to be an understanding among colleagues and managers about how it will impact on them and what the business gets out of it.”

Putting a monetary value on flexibility is something that Simon Kingsnorth, head of people experience at First Direct, advocates.

“With job shares, I’ll quite often get line managers saying: ‘I’ve got to employ two people and that will be twice the administration and twice the appraisals.’ But we can generally persuade them of the benefits – for example, that job-sharers tend to be extremely motivated workers and that you get two brains for the price of one.”

Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute of Employment Studies, adds: “There is evidence that people working flexibly are more productive than their full-time colleagues, but you need good performance management structures – with proper output objectives – and managers capable of carrying them out, to ensure that it recognised and that there isn’t this linking long hours with success and commitment. If HR monitors the outcomes, line managers will know they are going to be challenged and not get away with stereotypical thinking. HR can also help line managers prepare for that initial request to work flexibly – or even help them be proactive in suggesting it as a possibility.”

The IES recently found that 31% of men would like to work more flexibly, even for less money. “So there is evidence that they want to,” says Mercer.

Creative solutions

Claire Silvester, UK HR director for plumbing products company Aliaxis, says managers in her organisation often take the line that it’s impossible for someone to do their current job when working fewer days, but she has a policy of trying never to turn down requests for flexible working.

“I see it as my job to find creative solutions and to point out the huge expense – which I estimate at a year’s salary – of losing an employee and having to recruit someone new,” she says, providing the example of one woman in accounts who wanted to go part-time after her second child was born. Aliaxis helped her to re-engineer her job so that she only does the essential elements and delegates others. Three-and-a-half years on, she is still a key part of the team. Silvester also points to two fathers who wanted to work their hours around their children and have successfully achieved this.

Silvester believes HR needs to hold the line manager’s hand through the process. “The employee often needs to be persuaded to take a compromise attitude. I often say to an employee, ‘Don’t be too dogmatic. This could work but we need to think about the best option, then have a 12-week trial with monthly reviews’.”

As Silvester concludes, it’s not always about enforcing equal pay reviews or creating another set of rules for working parents. It’s talent management, pure and simple.

Case study: Sharon Benson

Sharon Benson is HR director at Trinity-Chiesi Pharmaceuticals and Personnel Today’s HR Director of the Year 2007.

“When I had my son Matthew five years ago, I took five months off. I didn’t think my employers would have allowed me to work flexibly, so I didn’t ask. I went to work somewhere else where they were quite good in terms of working from home. It was a management role, but they were really flexible about which days you worked from home and didn’t mind if I sometimes went home to put Matthew to bed, then came back to work for a while in the evening.

“A year later, I moved employers again because the firm went through a restructuring. I went from head of HR to HR manager, because I wanted to work as part of a team and expand my experience by working for an HR director. Now I’m head of HR again.

“When I joined my current employer four years ago, flexible working wasn’t actively encouraged – people felt they couldn’t ask for it because there were sales targets to achieve.

“But in the past 12 to 18 months, we’ve introduced new policies and most people who go on maternity leave now come back working flexibly. There are a range of options they take up and they manage to keep the same salary and status. We find these workers are really motivated. There is still some work to be done around new fathers because, although we wouldn’t view men any differently in terms of flexible working, they are not asking to take it up at the same rate.

“I’ve just had another baby and will be going back four days a week, and hope to work more from home.”

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