FAQs: A guide to flexible working

As more employees say they
would like
to reduce the length of their
average working week
, Philip Boucher examines the idea of flexible working hours

What
is the business case for flexible working hours?

The
Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) recently surveyed 102
large private service sector employers.

They
reported productivity gains from part-time working due mainly to reduced
absenteeism. Part-time managers were also viewed as more committed and
productive than their full-time counterparts.

The
measures also brought the costs of sickness absence down by as much as £50m a
year.

There
are also a number of corporate examples. For instance, Lloyd TSB believes that
flexible working has reduced staff absence by 1 per cent a year ñ a saving of
£10m. And the firm believes that subsequent favourable media publicity has
reaped a further £350,000.

Nationwide
Building Society also estimates that the 30 per cent increase in its rate of
return from maternity leave over the last 10 years has saved approximately £3m.
Currently, 91 per cent of women return to the company after having a baby.

What
options are currently available?

The
DTI advises firms to match flexible working to their own business needs. This
means choosing from a list that includes flexitime, part-time work, staggered
hours, compressed hours and time off in lieu.

These
all have their individual pros and cons and most employers mould the
implementation of flexible working to meet their current working practices.
Some even come up with their own solutions.

Sainsbury’s
is a prime example of this. It offers retail non-management staff a range of
flexible contracts, all of which are designed to help them achieve a better
work-life balance.

Some
of these have been specifically tailored to help parents. Under the ‘variable
hours contracts’ employees can choose to work mainly in the morning or early
afternoon during the school term, when they need to collect children from
school, and evenings during holiday periods.

The
large number of students who work for the firm are also included. Term-time
contracts mean employees do not need to work during main school or college
holiday periods. And students working in their college location during term
time also have no contractural requirement to work during the holidays when
they go home.

For
further information on the choices available, contact the DTI’s work-life
balance team on 020 7925 5415.

What
rules and regulations are there?

Part-time
workers have the right not to be treated less favourably than full-timers. This
applies not only to pay but also contractual sick pay, access to occupational
pensions schemes, training, holidays and maternity leave, maternity pay and
parental leave.

Despite
this, there is no automatic right to work on a reduced hours basis. The only possible
exceptions involve childrearing duties, as employers must now consider any
request for flexible working from parents. Refusing to allow an employee to
return part-time after maternity leave may be considered indirect sex
discrimination. Arguably the same principle can be extended to a refusal to
allow a job share.

Special
consideration must also be given to the needs of disabled employees. An
employer is required to make reasonable adjustments to retain an employee who
becomes disabled or when recruiting disabled people. Flexible working can be
one way of making such an adjustment.

How
common is flexible working?

The
TUC About Time survey found that 58 per cent of full-time employees have some
degree of flexibility built into their working hours. Part-time work is by far
the most popular form, followed by flexitime.

Despite
this, the report suggests that flexible working is not as common as it should
be. Only 16 per cent said they were able to easily switch from full to
part-time work and less than a quarter of employees have access to a formal
flexitime system.

And
while nearly three-fifths of the survey said they were able to take time off to
account for circumstances such as a doctor’s appointment, over 40 per cent are
unable to change their stated working hours in any way.

Does
flexible working raise costs?

Around
three quarters (74 per cent) of the managers surveyed in the Workplace Employee
Relations Survey said that flexible working had not led to additional costs or
that they were minimal.

In
fact, employers said the policies increased staff happiness (50 per cent),
aided retention (36 per cent) and had other benefits like reducing staff
absence (24 per cent).

Overall,
the survey found that employees were more satisfied when they felt that management
understood their need to balance work and family interests.

They
were also more committed to jobs that include family friendly practices or
special leave schemes.

Are
employers concerned with flexible working?

DFEE
research shows there is a high level of support for flexible working from
employers. In fact, employers are more concerned with the effects of the long
hours culture than their staff.

The
Work Life Balance Survey found that 91 per cent of employers believe the best
employees are those with a good work-life balance. A further 62 per cent felt
that everybody should have the option to work flexibly.

However,
while 43 per cent of employers thought the current situation was unfair to
their staff, only 26 per cent of employees felt the same.

Despite
this, both employers and employees agreed that while workplace targets should
have priority, employers still have a responsibility to help people balance
both sides of their life.

The
consensus among employers was that flexible working improved employment
relations, raised staff motivation/commitment and helped lower labour turnover.
Absenteeism rates and the retention of female staff were also improved.

Do
staff want to work flexibly?

A
study by the University of Essex claims that more than a third of employees
would like to reduce the length of their average working week, even if that
means taking home lower wages.

The
About Time Survey also found that the desire to work fewer hours is consistent
across all levels and sectors of industry, and claims that, ‘the desire for
working time flexibility may be a key factor.’

The
survey found that over 50 per cent of professionals and managers said that they
would like to work fewer hours.

Further
information:

DTI
work-life balance team – www.dti.gov/work-lifebalance/case.htm
Employers for Work-Life Balance – www.employersforwork-lifebalance.org.uk
Flametree – www.flametree.co.uk
Home Office partnerships – www.flexibility.co.uk/cases
Equal Opportunities Commission – www.eoc.org.uk
New Ways to Work – www.new-ways.co.uk
Parents at Work – www.parentsatwork.org.uk
The National Work-Life Forum – www.worklifeforum.com
Equality Direct – www.equalitydirect.org.uk

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