The Work and Families Act: What are employers doing in practice about flexible working?

The year 2007 will go down as the year employers woke up to the importance of flexible working. Awareness of work-life balance has never been so high – on the one hand we have minister for children, young people and families Beverley Hughes calling for government to extend flexible working rights to all, while parts of the Work and Families Act that come into force next week offer more rights than ever to staff with caring responsibilities.

And these developments are welcome, according to the findings of our exclusive work-life balance research carried out by Personnel Today in conjunction with incentives specialist Red Letter Days.

Our research found that 74% of respondents believe the Work and Families Act will have at least some impact on employees’ work-life balance, while 92% believe that offering flexible working hours to staff improves their job satisfaction.

Be aware

Being aware of workers’ family commitments is a key part of getting that balance right. When asked what would improve work-life balance in their organisation, most respondents (52%) said allowing staff to spend more time with their families. Reducing hours was the next most popular measure, cited by one-fifth of respondents.

Awareness of these issues is all well and good, but who actually offers flexible working and family-related initiatives? Flexible working hours are on offer at three-quarters of organisations in our survey, while 48% claim to offer family-related benefits.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these initiatives are more popular in the public sector – which has a long-standing reputation for flexible working practices – and in larger companies.

But are they doing enough? Almost 70% of respondents believe their employer addresses work-life balance to some extent, but only 19% think they address it to a great extent, according to our survey. Almost half think that the flexible benefits on offer at their organisation are not enough, and this includes those where their employers already offer a range of flexible working options. Private sector workers in particular feel short-changed by the benefits on offer.

Yet employers can see the potential benefits of offering such schemes. Increased retention was perceived to be the greatest factor in favour of offering flexible working (cited by 87% of respondents), followed by workers being happier in their jobs (82%) and increased productivity (65%).

So what’s stopping employers from doing more to improve staff’s work-life balance? It all comes down to budget. Cost was the top factor preventing organisations from offering family-specific perks, cited by 82% of survey respondents.

Employers also fear that offering more flexibility will attract resistance from line managers (53%), and a hefty proportion (46%) complained about the admin that offering these benefits would involve.

But there’s another key factor why organisations seem cautious about increasing the level of flexibility they offer to staff, especially when it comes to offering benefits that would only apply to staff with families.

Sixty-five per cent of employers offer no family-specific working practices, such as family experience days or childcare vouchers, according to our survey. Why is this?

Emotional connection

“It’s easy to reward an employee with more money without thinking about the whole person,” says Zachary Soreff, director of sales and marketing at Red Letter Days. “Just offering a cash incentive when it’s only going to pay the electricity bill doesn’t pack the same emotional connection as a family-specific incentive, which says to staff: ‘You have a life and a family outside work’.”

However, many perceive that offering such benefits would discriminate against workers without families – this reason was cited by 41% of respondents to our survey.

This caution is reflected by the types of flexible working benefits that organisations offer, too. While 95% agree that family- specific benefits would be attractive to staff, few actually offer them or would consider doing so. For example, only 11% of employers in our survey thought that increasing holiday allowance for workers with families would have the greatest impact on work-life balance.

And only 14% would consider offering vouchers for family members as a benefit. In fact, 75% strongly agreed that flexible working should extend to staff without families, echoing Hughes’ pleas.

Furthermore, there’s no compelling reason to make benefits more family-specific. According to our survey, most staff (87%) leave an employer for career progression, closely followed by salary. Only just over one-third (35%) leave for family reasons.

That’s not to say that flexibility for families is low on the agenda. Almost three-quarters feel that family-related benefits will become more important in five years. And employers recognise the influence workers’ families can have on where they decide to work – two-thirds think they have some influence, while 30% believe they have a strong influence.

As family-friendly benefits become more important, this will change the landscape for rewards and benefits, believes Soreff.

“Rewards will definitely become more personalised and customised. We will see a stronger emotional connection between the company and the people who work there,” he concludes.

About the research

The Personnel Today/Red Letter Days research was carried out among 1,015 HR professionals during early March 2007.

Almost one-third of respondents were from organisations employing more than 5,000 employees. The private sector/public sector split was 62%/38%.

Flexible facts

  • The benefit staff would find most motivating is free travel to work (33% of respondents), closely followed by private health insurance (27%).

  • 58% of respondents don’t know how much their organisation spends on staff incentives.

  • Only 2% of organisations surveyed currently offer ‘duvet days’.

  • Of staff who leave an organisation for family reasons, 78% are women.

  • Christmas parties are the most popular way to encourage staff to socialise with each other (71%).

  • Only 33% of organisations offer a formal wellbeing programme.

  • Employer recognition has the most impact on staff satisfaction, chosen by 94% of respondents.

What work-life balance benefits does your organisation offer?

  • Flexible working hours: 74%

  • Home working: 54%

  • Family-related benefits: 48%

  • Wellbeing programme: 33%

  • Duvet days: 2%

  • None: 13%

What work-life balance benefits would your organisation consider?

  • Wellbeing programme: 26%

  • Home working: 17%

  • Family-related benefits: 15%

  • Flexible working: 13%

  • Duvet days: 9%

  • None: 52%

What’s the most important factor in improving work-life balance in your organisation?

  • Enabling staff more quality time with family/loved ones: 52%

  • Reducing working hours: 21%

  • Stress management schemes: 15%

  • More holiday benefits: 8%

  • Flexible hours: 1%

How satisfied are you with the level of flexible working benefits offered by your organisation?

  • There are too many: 2%

  • It’s about right: 52%

  • Not enough: 46%

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