Flexible options should carry a health warning

It all seems to be coming up roses for working parents who have a child
under six or a young person under 18 with a disability.

As long as they meet some employment-related criteria and adhere to the
timeline for applications, the Employment Act 2002 – which came into force this
month – gives employed mums and dads the right to ask their employers for
flexible working if this will assist with childcare (News, 1 April).

Many possibilities are covered by flexible working, but the most popular may
be homeworking as this appears to have the potential to straddle
responsibilities at home and at work at the same time. To the employee, the
idea of homeworking is seductive, as it is often seen as the option to solve
all ills – a universal panacea which will almost instantaneously remedy a
disjointed work-life balance.

Employers can refuse to sanction a request made under this legislation, but
they must prove that it would damage the business. It is likely that many
employers, after looking at the costs and benefits, will be inclined to
sanction homeworking arrangements. It may well be seen as an acceptable
trade-off – cutting staff turnover, providing ex-gracia uncosted hours and
reducing fixed costs.

On the face of it, this may seem like a ‘win-win’ for all concerned. But
before the trickle of applications becomes a flood employers need to consider
the health and safety angle.

Most organisations recognise the health and safety implications when staff
work at home. Commonly, the important factors are hard issues such as
electrical safety, manual handling, and workstation and display screen set-up.
What should not be forgotten by HR professionals are the softer personality and
people issues.

For many, homeworking and the flexibility it brings will give them the time
and space to balance conflicting needs. However, the thought of homeworking
could prove more seductive than the reality. Having to make choices and take
control is not something that everyone can do effectively. Those who are not
able to cope well with homeworking may unexpectedly find that their health
suffers as a result.

E-mail is not the same as talking face-to-face and the technology that
enables employees to work remotely can be a double-edged sword that
depersonalises and disconnects the workplace.

HR professionals need to ensure that before anyone begins to work remotely,
it is not going to be putting their health and safety at risk. A judgement
needs to be made and ongoing support needs to be given to ensure issues related
to personality and temperament are being managed in an effective way.

For more on the Employment Act 2002 and flexible working go to www.personneltoday.com/features

Professional agenda by David Hodgkinson, Local authority health advisor
and members of the CIPD

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