Conflicting voices on flexible working


The majority of employers believe that flexible working is good for business. A new government study published to mark the launch of new family-friendly employment rights shows British bosses are firmly behind policies to help parents work flexibly and balance their careers with childcare.

April 6 saw the introduction of new legislation giving the 3.8m UK workers of children under 6, and parents with disabled children under 18 the legal right to request flexible working arrangements.

According to the Department for Trade and Industry’s Work-Life Blance 2003 Survey, nine out of 10 bosses say flexible working is low cost and is good for business.

A survey by the National Centre for Social Research has also shown that 1.3 million staff plan to ask for flexible working rights under the new Employment Act legislation.

The DTI survey of more than 1,200 workplaces and 2,000 employees revealed that most employers (82 per cent) had already introduced work-life balance arrangements.

The survey findings reveal that more than nine out of 10 (94 per cent) employers agree that people will work best when they can strike a healthy balance between work and the rest of their lives; nine out of 10 (91 per cent) employers said there were no or minimal costs involved in implementing their work-life balance practices and over three quarters (77 per cent) of employees who requested a change to their working patterns have had their request agreed to.

But despite these findings, half the employers questioned another survey by law firm Linklaters and charity Parents at Work said their current procedures would need changing to satisfy the new legislation. Three-quarters stated that the new legislation would not make them more likely to grant a flexible working request, as they had their own policies in place. And as a result of the new legislation, 71 per cent said they will introduce a formal appeals procedure if requests to work flexibly are denied.

Why only for parents?
According to the Chartered Institute of Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the new rights for parents should encourage organisations to offer the right to all their employees.

As evidence, CIPD points to its Work Parenting and Careers 2002 Survey. This showed that almost a quarter of parents had moved to a new role or organisation that offered more flexible working arrangements when they became parents.

Mike Emmott, employee relations adviser at the CIPD, said that “given the business benefits to be gained from helping employees take better control of their lives, we think the new law deserves a broad welcome. It should not present serious problems to employers once they have understood what it means.”

He added: "In fact we would have liked to see the right extended to all employees - not just those with young children. We would urge organisations to go beyond compliance with the law, and to respond positively wherever possible to employees’ requests. There are likely to be significant business benefits if they do, including better recruitment and retention of staff and improved productivity."

Yet more legislation?
Employers are likely to face further regulation unless they embrace the new flexible working rights, the government has warned. Ministers says if employers choose to ignore the new laws - the current system only gives the workers a right to request rather than demand flexible working - the government will legislate to force employers to offer staff flexible working rights.

Speaking to Personnel Today magazine, employment relations minister Alan Johnson said that the government would review the flexible working right in three years to see if it works.

The CIPD’s Mike Emmott, commented: "The government is trusting employers to do the right thing. They need to show goodwill or there will be pressure to tighten up. If employers don't behave, they will be punished."

Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary elect, warned that the union movement would fight for increased staff rights if employers ignore the latest regulation.

Employer resistance
Despite the DTI’s findings, business leaders appear less than enthusiastic about the changes. The Institute of Directors characterised the new legislation as ‘a black day for business’ and contested the need for the introduction of more work-life balance regulation.

Launching a new policy paper, the IoD’s head of policy, Ruth Lea, said: “The extensions to family friendly policies, including the right for parents to request flexible working patterns, may seem progressive but they will hurt businesses, cause resentment in the workplace and are redolent of discredited 1970s feminist ideology.”

Good employers were already aware of the business benefits of accommodating their employees’ wishes for flexible working practices, the IoD argued. It said working women in Britain are already far more likely to work part-time than their EU counterparts, adding that 31 per cent of women with dependent children already have flexible working patterns including flexitime, term-time working and job sharing.

"The measures already taken by employers to accommodate the flexible working needs of their workforce are laudable and are to be encouraged,” said Ruth Lea. “British employers are ahead of the work-life balance agenda. More legislation is quite simply unwarranted."