What the Government needs to do

On 24 March, the Government will launch an initiative encouraging employers
to address the work-life balance of its employees. But while it may wheel out
examples of organisations which have experienced increased productivity and
happier workforces through flexible working, what practical steps can it take
to persuade employers that this is the way ahead?

The first step is, of course, to demonstrate the approach rather than simply
talking about it. As Joanna Foster, chair of the National Work-Life Forum
notes, it is all very well for the Government to promote these concepts but
they will be challenged to demonstrate that they are following this way of
working in their own day-to-day operations. "Where is flexibility in the
public sector?" asks Foster. "What flexibility do civil servants
receive and what kind of flexible work is available for the leaders of
government? Can they be flexible while operating in this traditionally
long-hours culture?"

Foster wants to see the Government encouraging dialogue between employers
and staff in the creation of flexible working agreements. The feeling exists
that, so far, it is the employers which have gained all the benefits of a
flexible workforce while employees have continued to work without security or
recognition. An effective dialogue would mean benefits are shared by both
sides.

Technology is often key to flexible working – the most obvious example being
the use of PCs and high-speed communications to support home working – but it
is imperative that the emphasis on IT does not make flexible working
unattainable for those who cannot afford the technology or whose work does not
naturally offer itself to these techniques. The Government must work to ensure
the necessary resources are accessible to as many organisations as possible.

"Flexibility of mind is extremely important," states Foster.
"Many middle managers find it difficult to get their thinking around the
changes needed to manage flexibility. The Government needs to place these kind
of skills on the learning agenda. What are the skills required for managing
flexibly and where can they be learned?"

One opportunity for meeting this challenge may lie in the new Learning and
Skills Councils as they emerge from the Training and Enterprise Councils. The
Government needs to ensure such skills sets are visible on national and
regional levels.

Flexible working impinges on many areas of legislation, from the Working
Time directive through to the employment rights of part-timers, and it is
important that the Government studies all relevant areas to ensure they
encourage this way of working rather than posing obstacles to implementation.

But perhaps most important, the Government needs to focus on reversing the
negative image which often surrounds flexible work. Part-timers and flexible
workers are entitled to the same respect as full-timers and consequently should
be given the same benefits, rights and recognition.

"The world is full of part-timers and people working different
patterns, and yet our attitude remains anchored in the idea that part-time
staff are not as committed or hard-working as full-timers," says Foster.

With that increased recognition, the psychological contract between employer
and employee can start to change. The employment relationship will not simply
be about paying someone for their time but about valuing their contribution in
the workplace and supporting their lives outside it.

"If people are happy with their personal lives, their community
responsibilities and themselves, they will be able to concentrate fully on
their work," Foster says. "At the end of the day, flexibility is
about creating the right mindset – it is not just an employment tool."

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