Long-term vision vital on flexibility

Organisations need to look ahead to see the benefits of allowing parents the
right to flexible working hours

There was a fundamental shift in the work flexibility debate when the
Government announced in December that for the first time parents will have a
qualified right to ask their employer for flexible working hours.

The proposals are a compromise between giving employees greater legal rights
and protecting the freedom of organisations to run their businesses in the way
they see fit.

Previously, flexibility has been discussed in terms of how quickly the
labour market could be made to adjust to changing economic circumstances by
altering its size and/or shape.

The emphasis was on numerical flexibility, with companies adjusting
workforce numbers to meet business needs by hiring and firing and using
temporary labour. Temporal flexibility – through contracts based on annual
hours – was also used to match the time input of labour to production or
service schedules.

The debate has increasingly become focused on employee-friendly initiatives,
however. For the Government, flexibility is more about offering a means for
employees to improve their skills or to attract inactive workers (particularly
lone parents) back into the labour market.

By implementing EU directives, the Government has also made numerical
flexibility much less attractive.

At the same time, employers have developed family-friendly and work-life
balance policies as part of their ’employee proposition’ to attract and retain
workers in a tightening labour market.

As the economic downturn continues, the key question becomes: how robust
will the use of measures to attract labour supply be in a tighter labour

From the Government’s point of view, the need to help people get a job and
keep it will be ever more important as unemployment increases.

The cost of sustaining these policies is also likely to rise at a time when
there are other competing demands on government expenditure.

For employers, they can either take the short-term view that they no longer
need employee-friendly flexibility when the emphasis has moved from retention
to downsizing, or they can look to the enduring benefits of helping employees
to successfully combine work and home commitments.

The basis on which employers will make their decision is uncertain. If they
choose to look, there is lots of evidence that employee-friendly policies
deliver tangible benefits to employers, particularly through productivity,
commitment and attendance.

The latter should be persuaded to stick with attractive policies on working
hours and time off for study or travel because, having established a distinctive
brand, it is dangerous to change it.

The search for quality recruits in the war for talent is not over. Companies
do not want to get the reputation of running with the hare and then with the
hounds in an expedient fashion – especially in the graduate labour market.

There is also the argument that the benefits of flexible working hours can
accrue to both management and employees. All that is necessary is that there is
a mechanism for eliciting what is in the interest of both parties.

The problem is that management, employees and their representatives can be
myopic. They can’t see what is for their own good, because they look too
narrowly at the immediate situation.

The Government has felt it necessary to push employers into considering the
interests of their employees. However, research from various sources has found
that employers may be unreasonably reluctant to consider employee-friendly

While critics have argued that the law does not go far enough, the
Government has reminded employers of their responsibility to consider
employees’ needs. It is not just good practice but will be beneficial for
employers whatever the state of the labour market.

By Peter Reilly, associate director, Institute for Employment Studies. peter.reilly@employment-studies.co.uk

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