With the end of ‘a job for life’, the ticking of the demographic ‘time bomb’, and the ever-increasing pace of new technology, employers are having to consider a wide range of new working patterns that take account of this rapidly changing work climate.
Types of flexible working
There are many well-established alternatives to full-time working:
- Part-time working, which can vary greatly in hours worked and pattern of hours.
- Flexitime, which allows staff to choose which hours to work (within pre-set limits), as long as they fulfil the required hours within a set period.
- Staggered hours, whereby, for instance, some staff come in at 8am and leave at 4pm, whereas others start and leave an hour or two later.
- Job sharing, where two staff do the job of one full-time staff member by sharing the work in an agreed fashion.
- Shift working, which enables 24 hour coverage.
- Unpaid leave, e.g. taking a sabbatical for a period of up to a year after an agreed length of service, or taking a career break whilst children are young.
- Working from home, which is much easier in these days of tele-working and computer links.
- Downshifting, where a member of staff agrees to less responsibility for less pay. This can be very useful in the run-up to retirement, and often goes hand in hand with choosing to go part-time.
The benefits (and barriers)
In the past, an employer’s initial reaction to flexible working patterns was likely to be a downright refusal to consider these, on the grounds that it would cost money, be difficult to administer and make work, and that no serious career player would want to work anything other than full-time anyway. Nowadays such an attitude would be seen as short-sighted and counterproductive:
- Staff want a better life-work balance at all ages. Those employers who can accommodate this by allowing flexible working patterns will be rewarded with more loyal staff who choose to stay and are absent less often. The company will have less problems with recruitment. Happier and less stressed employees are also more productive, and this in turn leads to more profits.
- We live in a society where consumers are increasingly expecting their needs to be met 24 hours a day. To satisfy this is impossible without shift working, job sharing, part-time workers etc. Furthermore, machinery can be used to its fullest extent in a workplace where flexibility is built in.
- Half the hours does not equate to half the effort (or half the commitment). Employees with the ability to manage their work-life balance better are more committed, not less. A company that exhibits this commitment to employees’ needs will get and retain talented people who will be prepared to commit their efforts in return.
- An employer who can offer truly flexible working patterns is an employer of choice who will attract the best and most diverse workforce.
Despite these advantages there are still some barriers to be overcome – although these are steadily falling:
- Attitudes must also continue to change. The culture of deciding that older people are unemployable will soon be illegal, but we need the perception of managers and colleagues to move with the times as well. There is still a macho culture in many workplaces, which says that anyone taking career breaks, working part-time, or not putting in very long hours, is not serious about their career. This is short-sighted and wrong but must still be overcome.
How are organisations reacting?
The majority of employers fall into one of three distinct categories:
- The ‘Proactive Group’. These are leaders in creativity and innovative thinking about how best to engage a quality workforce. In employee surveys they are invariably within the top 100 companies to work for.
- The ‘Reactive Group’. They know that flexible working is a good idea but tend to react to market trends and pick up initiatives from others. They often provide flexible working through fear of the consequences if they don’t.
- The ‘Change Resistant Group’. These are often small companies with less capacity (as they see it) for flexibility. They are likely to perceive that it only applies to their female, non-technical staff. They resist the idea because it looks risky and, at face value, is difficult to set up and administer.
These three groups may benefit considerably from the independent experience and expertise available through an external consultant. For example:
- Group 1 may benefit from an objective forum for creating and analysing ideas, providing facilitation, quality assurance and risk analysis – and ideas the organisation may not otherwise think of.
- Group 2 may need practical advice to help with increasing their knowledge and developing the new ideas needed to integrate flexible working into their company culture and ultimately move them into Group1.
- Group 3 may need support to increase their knowledge, work through the risk factors, and in particular to remove their fear of change.
When considering the introduction of new patterns of working, it’s important to get it right. Early pioneers of home working, for example, did not appreciate the dangers of isolation and lack of support of their staff at home, and found that things often did not work out, with home workers sometimes ending up more stressed than in their original workplace. There are, however, ways of increasing the likelihood that flexible working will meet its objectives for both the employer and their staff, which is why it makes sense to get expert advice before introducing new work patterns – rather than to help deal with the consequences if this is not handled correctly.
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