The new flexibility

The public sector led the way in flexible working, but is having to find new
ways to keep ahead of the game as the private sector wises up. Nic Paton reports
on the sector’s latest efforts to maintain its leading position

Twenty years ago, the public sector was at the forefront of the flexible
working revolution, with local government in particular pioneering what were
then radical initiatives such as flexi-time and part-time working. Today, with
new laws on flexible working due to come into effect in April 2003, public
sector HR professionals are increasingly waking up to the fact that they can
ill afford to rest on their laurels.

According to David Benson, head of personnel at Shropshire County Council
and chair of the Society of Chief Personnel Officers (Socpo) employee support
group, flexible working arrangements that once seemed innovative now, compared
with best practice in some parts of the private sector, often appear, well,
inflexible.

"The world has moved on in many respects. We need to think more
radically about employment contracts and about what employees want," he
says.

An employee study carried out last summer by the council, for instance,
found that flexi-time, with its ‘core hours’ stipulation of 2-4pm where
employees have to be present was seen as inflexible because it prevented
parents from doing the school run.

Similarly, employees wanted the possibility of homeworking to be looked at
more closely, along with the idea of a compressed working week. There was also
concern about long hours and a ‘meetings’ culture.

"Does it really matter if someone slips out for 45 minutes or whatever,
as long as they make up the time? We need to think more flexibly to help people
help the business," Benson suggests.

Historically, flexible working within the public sector has tended to focus
on job sharing and flexi-time. Formal homeworking is still relatively uncommon
– although councils such as Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council have been
pioneering teleworking. However, informal working from home is growing in
popularity as improvements in technology have made it more feasible.

Flexible working is also increasingly seen as a vital tool in the battle to
recruit new staff and retain talented existing employees. The NHS, in
particular, has made much of its flexible working practices in trying to tempt
nurses back into the service. And long holidays – and term time working – are
still a valuable perk for teachers and some support staff.

The problem has been that, too often within the public sector, flexible
working arrangements have been implemented either in an over formal,
one-size-fits-all, way or haphazardly, with line manager discretion playing an
important part, says Shirley Dex, principal research fellow at the Judge
Institute of Management at Cambridge University.

High staff turnover, worries about career progression and low awareness
among employees about the options on offer also remain common problems.

"A lot of people feel they can’t ask for it because of the pressures
they feel it will put on other colleagues," she explains.

There is a tension, too, in the need to be providing flexible working
patterns with the growing challenges of service delivery. The public wants
access to services more quickly and more flexibly (for instance at weekends or
24-hours-a-day), while the Government’s improvement and change agenda is also
putting the sector under pressure.

Councils often face a ‘Catch-22′ in that, in order to attract scarce staff,
they need to highlight their flexible working policies, but staff shortages
make it hard to be as flexible as they might like.

"The demands of the service sometimes do not allow them to introduce
the extent of flexibility that they hope," concedes Rita Sammons,
vice-president for employee relations at the Chartered Institute of Personnel
and Development and HR director of Hampshire County Council.

Conversely, many private sector organisations, particularly in the retail
and banking sectors, have picked up the flexible working baton with enthusiasm,
suggests Paul Masterman, head of local government at TMP Worldwide.

While the public sector has generally been open to ideas such as
secondments, job sabbaticals, and crèches – in February 2003 Scotland Yard
Commissioner Sir John Stevens called for crèches to be introduced into police
stations – secondments and job sabbaticals, the private sector has crept ahead
in some areas. The private sector is good at things such as home working and
dealing with talented younger people who maybe want to go off travelling or
take a career break and then come back to an organisation.

"The public sector would have some cultural difficulties with that. A
lot of managers would see that as a negative rather than a positive,"
Masterman argues.

Yet it is just such young people – who Masterman describes as "free
agents of talent" – that the public sector needs to tempt from the private
sector to drive forward its improvement agenda. "Recruitment and retention
has crept up the league table in terms of being the number one issue in public
sector HR and in particular in local government. They need to bring in a whole
new range of people with different backgrounds and skills," he says.

The implementation of the Employment Act next month is also focusing minds.
Under the terms of the act, employees with children under six or disabled
children under 18, and with at least six months’ service can request working
patterns that help them meet their responsibilities towards young children.
Employers then have to consider the request seriously and put any reasons for
refusal in writing.

The changes, argues Shropshire’s Benson, are unlikely to lead to a mad rush
of parents coming forward demanding flexible working. Indeed, if a study by the
Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) in February 2003, is anything to go by
there may be very little take-up at all. It found that more than 40 per cent of
UK workers were not even aware of the new rights.

Most organisations are taking it as read that, while nominally for parents,
the regulations will in practice apply across the board. The fact that flexible
working is not just a perk for parents or those with elderly dependants to look
after is something that has largely been recognised by public sector
organisations.

Awareness and take-up of the new right – which HR professionals have been
working towards for some time – will probably slowly grow over time and so is
unlikely to lead to too many major headaches, predicts Benson.

However, by making the decision-making process much more transparent, and
forcing organisations to think that much harder about why it is they cannot
accommodate someone, the new laws will eventually lead to huge cultural change,
believes Julie Mellor, EOC chief executive.

So, what is the answer to improving flexible working arrangements within the
public sector? First, it is worth stressing that it’s not all bad news. Despite
the charges against it, the public sector’s track record does stand up well
when compared to the private sector. "In general, the public sector has
had more flexible and more leave policies for longer than any private sector
companies," stresses the Judge Institute’s Dex.

Public sector bodies are constantly striving to improve their workplace
flexibility and there is a growing recognition that changes need to be made.

Responding to change

Critically, the public sector needs to look at how its flexible working
packages fit the needs of the employee, rather than shoe-horning employees into
existing programmes, suggests Hampshire’s Sammons.

"The public sector has always been pretty good at offering a range of
flexible working, such as joint working, career breaks and flexi-time. Where it
has not been so positive is doing it the other way round, being able to tailor
what we want to the needs of the employee," she says.

"Rather than looking at a framework and seeing what it is possible to
accommodate, it is about looking to try to fit the framework around you. Public
sector flexible working often tends to be process and policy driven," she
adds.

Hampshire County Council has been one of the pioneers of flexible working
within local government, offering its 31,000 staff, among other benefits, term
time working, career breaks, home working, job shares, part-time working,
compassionate leave, parental leave, paternity leave, a workplace nursery,
bring child to work days and online shopping.

Yet Sammons admits that, even here, getting the message across is still
difficult. "There is still a tendency in some parts of the organisation to
work in slightly rigid patterns, where full-time working is the norm."

Councils could do more to look at formal homeworking schemes for a wider
array of staff, suggests Benson. For instance, looking at whether team-based
social workers could handle their caseloads from home.

Celebrating and promoting flexible working provision to staff, managers and
potential candidates is something local authorities also need to be doing at
both a local and national level. This is an area in which private sector
pioneers such as Tesco and Nationwide have excelled, and where the public
sector could learn some valuable lessons in working to change poor perceptions.

"A lot of potential candidates are increasingly looking to see if there
is some sort of flexible working scheme on offer," admits Benson.

Organisations also need to look at their employer brand, review their
employment procedures and policies and simply look at the sort of people they
are trying to attract, suggests TMP’s Masterman.

Ultimately, the public sector needs to take a hard look at how its flexible
working schemes fit in with the wider continuous improvement agenda, argues
Jill Mortimer, head of futures at the Employers Organisation for Local
Government.

The organisation has drawn up guidelines for employers on how to deal with
the right to ask, which will become law in April but, at a wider level, local
authorities need to look at how their employees work, she suggests. Finding the
balance between ever-growing demands and the need for better work-life balance
is never going to be easy, but it is one that must be struck.

"What service does the Monday to Friday nine-to-five suit?" she
asks. "It was a post-war, fundamentally male working pattern to provide
services that women could access during the day. But it is still inculcated
within our culture that that is a proper job."

Hertfordshire County Council

In an attempt to tackle the problem
of poor take-up of flexible working, in April 2003 Hertfordshire County Council
will unveil a flexible working directory to its 28,000 staff.

The directory, which will be available on the organisation’s
intranet, will outline the flexible working options available to employees. It
will also give managers advice on how to deal with requests for flexible
working, particularly in light of the new regulations in April.

Often employees simply do not know what is on offer, or are
worried about their career path or about adding to colleagues’ workloads, and
managers simply do not know how to respond to requests.

"We will be encouraging managers and staff to look through
it and find options that suit both their needs," says Gillian Hibberd,
assistant director of personnel.

The council already offers a wide array of flexible working
options, including part-time working (taken up by 16,000 staff), compressed
hours and flexi-working. It has piloted homeworking using around 300 employees,
with workers getting an allowance to contribute to their fuel costs, and offers
mobile workers access to ‘oases’ – drop-in centres in regional offices where
workers can download information from the central computer system, check
e-mails and so on.

"Our strategy involves more than just flexible working,
including things such as flexible benefits, schemes to reduce national
insurance contributions and childcare vouchers," says Hibberd.

Some tangible business benefits of this focus on flexible
working is that sickness absence at the council is now about 3.6 days per year
– much lower than average – and staff turnover has reduced from 16 to 14 per
cent in past 12 months, with fewer unfilled vacancies.

"It is still high, but there are people who are struggling
with much higher turnover," says Hibberd.

Where the public sector could learn from the private sector,
she believes is in celebrating its track record on flexible working and making
potential and current employees more aware of the options open to them – hence
the need for initiatives such as the directory.

"The private sector has a much stronger business
imperative and it has made more progress. But my impression is that it is still
in small pockets of excellence, and that it is not something that is
universally applied," says Hibberd.

"In the public sector, there is universal acceptance of
the importance of flexible working, but the approaches have not been so
innovative. The public sector does not celebrate itself as well," she says.

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