Tipping the balance

Despite the growing case for industry and commerce to offer some form of
flexible working, there remain a number of barriers to individual employers
implementing a policy successfully. Caroline Horn reports on how these barriers
can be overcome

The Government’s campaign to promote a better work-home balance for
employees suggests that a sea change could be under way in how flexible working
practices are viewed. While there are strong business arguments for the
adoption of flexible working practices, all the time that it is perceived
purely as a tool for working mothers, or as an option for those who do not take
their career seriously, its wider adoption won’t happen. The new government
initiative, which includes research on flexible working practices, could help
to change that perception.

There are many good reasons why employers should be prepared to offer
flexible working practices. Nigel Crouch, an industrialist working with the DTI
Innovations Unit, says, "There are potentially massive benefits from
introducing flexible working. If you look at the skills shortages in the market
now, as an employer you are going to be much more attractive if you can show
you can provide a work/life balance for your employers. So flexible working can
help to attract new staff, as well as with the retention of existing
staff."

A recent report by John Knell at the Industrial Society and Carol Savage at
the Resource Connection – Flexible working and male professionals: Can’t
change, won’t change? – showed that most of the respondents, 84 per cent,
believe that organisations should offer flexible working. However, the report
also suggests that they believe that flexibility at work is a route to career
death.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that acceptance of flexible
working is one thing, but actual adoption is a very different issue. Charlie
Monkcom, communications manager at New Ways to Work, an organisation which aims
to encourage employers to develop more work-life balance schemes, says, "A
lot of demand is latent, which is why the government initiative is so
important.

"There are a lot of men who would like to reorganise their working day
and feel they can’t even ask because the workplace is so resistant to these
ideas. It’s a taboo area."

There are a number of barriers to the successful implementation of flexible
working practices in individual companies. Crouch says, "One of the
greatest barriers to the introduction of flexible working practices is the lack
of trust between colleagues. While people seem to think that flexible working
is a great idea, a high proportion think that people will abuse it." This
is again borne out in the Can’t Change, Won’t Change report, in which 66 per
cent of the sample questioned suggested that flexibility would be open to
abuse. It was the major problem identified by the sample respondents to
offering flexible working.

There are other problems, too, says Crouch. "In the UK, we are very
input driven rather than output driven and you have to be seen to be at work.
People worry that if you are not there quite as much, an employer will lose
confidence in you."

Even where flexible working policies do exist, often they are based on
implicit gender stereotyping – the assumption that it is more acceptable for
women to work flexible hours than men. Again, the report highlights that many
men share this view. The Industrial Society recently announced it would reject
the term "family-friendly", believing it gives the impression it is
only of concern to women with young children (Personnel Today, 18 January,
2000).

John Knell, head of research at the Industrial Society, says, "The
message is that there is a good business case for offering flexible working
practices, and we know that there is growing demand for it from employees, but
that they don’t feel that they have the support from the top or the skills to
implement it."

Crouch, a strong advocate of Partnership with People programmes, suggests
that the company culture that PwP programmes generate could help in the
adoption of flexible practices. "If you have the right culture of listening
to people’s opinions, honesty and trust, it will be the greatest way to
overcome the distrust among colleagues," he says. "Equally,
Partnerships with People focuses on doing what you do in the most efficient
way, so if you are not at your station continuously, it is still recognised
that the work is being done efficiently."

The adoption of flexible working practices will often require a fundamental
shift in company culture. As Crouch points out, this could be the first step in
much wider changes in corporate attitudes. And it requires senior management to
actively support the change.

As the report states: "While individuals in senior positions continue
to work very long hours and choose not to personally pursue, or implement,
flexible work options, it will remain much harder in reality for flexible
workers to reach senior management positions, unless they work to the same pace
as their colleagues."

It is also essential to be sure what is flexible working is about. Crouch
sees the definition of flexible practices as one of the key problems in terms
of its implementation. "Everyone who talks about it says it’s a good idea
but in reality, there are probably misconceptions about what it means," he
says. "There is a strong onus on management to make that clear.
Flexibility does not mean part time work but full time work done other
ways."

The Industrial Society and The Resource Connection define flexible working
as "a choice driven by an employee’s circumstances, which meets the
employer’s business need". In other words, "the pursuit of
flexibility should not be driven solely by the operational imperatives of
employers."

However, the demands of the employer still need to be met and flexible
working demands rigorous planning to ensure they are met outside the standard
nine to five hours. Knell comments: "It is very difficult to dabble in
flexible working practices if you want to do it properly. It affects a whole
range of issues including rewards, communication processes, work flow, and
there are implications for how you manage teams. So you have to consider how
you manage flexibility as an organisation, before you can think about
implementing it piecemeal."

Consultant Ceridian Performance Partners specialises in helping
organisations to develop strategies that will better balance life and work
commitments among their workforce. Flexible working practices forms part of
that. Managing director Penny de Valk says, "Flexible working looks really
easy – it could be seen as a kind of job share. Then companies try to implement
a policy and start to fall down on who is eligible for what. It is better for
companies to have a broad menu of options but they need to have a rigorous
implementation policy."

She says that it is rare for companies to have no flexible working policies
– often they form part of an equal opportunities package, or a diversity
programme. But she adds, "The companies we see tend to have great
policies, but no practice. Flexible working tends to be a marginalised process
that staff and managers are afraid to do anything about."

When a company is serious about implementing flexible working practices, the
first question Ceridian asks is, why are they doing this? "We need to
know, where does flexible working integrate with the rest of their HR
strategy?" explains de Valk. Companies need to consider whether it is
aimed at reducing staff turnover, attracting women back from maternity leave,
helping to reduce high levels of stress or because they want to become an
employer of choice.

"Then they need to start putting numbers to it," says de Valk.
"Training costs and workplace costs have to be weighed against the cost of
losing staff through maternity or to a more flexible employer." Research
in the US also indicates that, in areas such as retailing, where flexible
working can contribute to an employee’s sense of control over their working
life, that has a positive effect on their performance, and therefore on the
firm’s profitability. The classic case study at Sears, Roebuck & Co found a
5 per cent rise in staff attitude boosted sales by 0.5 per cent.

Before flexible working practices are implemented, HR departments and
managers need to be trained in how best to do so. "Managers fear doing it
because they fear setting a precedent," says de Valk. "It is
important to design a rigorous process that everyone has to go through, to
emphasise that it’s not an entitlement but the result of transparent discussion
between an individual and a company’s needs. Employees need to show that this
is how it can work so that the work will get done, but in a different way. That
way, they show that they are still motivated, but want to do their work
differently." Having a flexible working policy in place also means that an
employee is not driven to standing outside the manager’s door because of dire
personal problems, which have to be aired.

New Ways to Work provides advice for individuals on how to best approach
their employers on this issue, as well as offering training consultancy for
corporates. Monkcom says, "Evidence from a number of surveys suggests that
people would be willing to trade some of their income for time, at certain
periods of their life."

The organisation provides employees with information such as case studies,
or advice on what competitors are doing. "The fundamental principle we
operate is that both employers and employees can gain from flexible
practices." It does, however, warn individuals to expect resistance and be
prepared to negotiate.

Having a flexible policy in place takes the issue away from the reason for
changing working practices, to how the work will get done, says de Valk.
"An employee will be able to say, these are the details of how it will
impact on my work, this is how we will be able to judge if it’s working or not,
and this is a suggested trial period. It gives managers a sense of comfort that
the work can be done. And instead of coming with problems to your manager and
having to feel grateful for changes to your hours, it puts two adults on an
equal footing."

At this stage, the reason for employees requesting changes to their working
requirements remains caring commitments, particularly women with young
children, says Monkcom. "But that has changed in the past few years. There
are more people taking training and further education courses, for example, and
others who simply do not want the traditional idea of a five-day week. Ten
years ago, the idea of a chief executive working part-time, or job-sharing,
would have been unthinkable but there are increasing examples of that."

Ceridian agrees that there is growing interest in the adoption of flexible
working practices. De Valk comments: "Over the past 18 months there has
been more interest in work-life balance, especially around flexible working
because the labour market has tightened so employers want to position
themselves as an employer of choice. It is also considered as best practice for
a corporate to be able to offer a range of working options."

She adds, "The Government initiative will hopefully raise the profile
of the whole issue and show the way forward in thinking about it differently.
It is a buzzword but there is confusion about how to do it and how to do it
well."

It is difficult to get exact figures on how many employees are currently
working flexibly. Knell comments: "Flexible working is often lumped in
with reduced hours working, and that is viewed as part-time working. Part-time
working is not synonymous with flexible working."

He feels the extent of change is probably ahead of the official statistics,
which pick up both self-employed and part time workers. "Self-employed
figures remain fairly static but there might be a number of people working for
employers full-time but working two days from home, or doing 30 hours over two
days," says Knell.

"We also know that there is huge growth in out-sourcing of core
activities, which suggests that there is more growth in flexible working as
companies providing sub-contracted resources often have to offer more
flexibility."

Increasingly, some employers – particularly those in the service sector –
have to offer flexible working because they are based on 24-hour operation.
"There is a debate about the trend towards a 24-hour society, especially
in the service sector. Some companies are phone-based, offering 24-hour banking,
or retail, or advice/guidance. They need to cover unsociable hours and
therefore to work on a flexible basis," adds Knell.

Few, though, want to see flexible working practices confined to specific
sectors. De Valk suggests that all employers will come under increasing
pressure to implement some form of flexible practice: "The employers we
are talking to are looking at three to four year projections regarding where
they need to be and a number are building in flexible working practices,"
she says. "The change will happen over the next few years, partly because
of the tight labour market but also because people will simply not be prepared
to do more and more, and to continue paying high family costs."

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