Flexibility or friction?

Jul 06 2005 by Print This Article

Is flexible working making for more harmonious workplaces or just causing growing friction between those who are deemed eligible for flexible hours and those who aren't?

Currently, the right to request flexible hours in Britain is available to employees with children under five, or disabled children under 18. Proposals to extend this right to all workers with caring responsibilities are currently under government consultation.

Profit and performance concerns aside, many businesses have voiced support for more flexibility. Some 93 per cent of Institute of Directors members believe that family-friendly policies are good in practice, for example.

But whose flexibility is really being considered? On the one hand, employees are demanding more flexibility, usually to allow them to manage their family life and be more in control of their working day. On the other, an employer's approach to flexible work might make the organisation more flexible, but could do little to meet the needs of the staff.

The increase in female-friendly employment legislation is backfiring
The best flexible work solutions bring both business benefits and improvements to working conditions for staff. But already the increase in female-friendly employment legislation is backfiring, with working women in the UK reporting that their levels of job satisfaction are actually dropping.

A study of 25,000 British female employees, by Professor Michael Rose at the University of Bath, found that job satisfaction among part-time women in the UK had fallen by eight per cent since the early nineties and among full-time women by three per cent. Satisfaction among men remained constant in the same period.

This is in spite of efforts by the government to improve work-life balance for women, such as extended rights to request flexible working and increases in maternity benefits.

The Department of Trade and Industry insists that the government was committed to making work an attractive option for women, boosting them and the economy as a whole.

But if flexible hours are only extended to those with families, those without, who feel they have equally justifiable reasons for wanting them, are going to feel disadvantaged.

In a recent article in Personnel Today Jane Shaw, HR director at recruitment firm Resource Innovations, said she felt that increasing employee rights will actually breed discontent in the workplace and this is having a negative impact on those it is meant to protect.

"What is surfacing now is resentment towards those who take advantage of their increasing freedoms from those without children who never have an 'accepted pretext' to leave early and sometimes end up working harder to compensate for colleagues who do," she said.

Then there are the parents who play the childcare card to take time off for non-parenting chores. Even if they don't, their disgruntled childfree colleagues may suspect they do.

Ironically, workers who are parents are probably unaware of any unfairness Ė many will envy the perceived freedom that their childfree colleagues enjoy.

So it is little wonder that resentment within some large organisations on this issue is running high.

But is it right that parenthood should be the only justification for being granted flexible rights? What about those women Ė and men - who have spiritual aspirations, and feel they are just as entitled to pursue other interests and get involved in challenges and commitments outside of work?

The Employment Rights Act (ERA) guidelines on eligibility for flexible working may be set in stone, but employers have the wherewithal to draw up their own. An organisation that sees value in allowing people some personal freedom and space, regardless of their parental status, stand to gain considerably from a more fulfilled and contented workforce.

And they may have to if they are to avoid counterproductive negative attitudes in the workplace caused by resentment among those who don't have an automatic right to request flexible working. Rightly or wrongly, they may take the view that they have to work harder to compensate for productivity lost to colleagues who are entitled to flex off early.

But there is another reason why employers need to embrace flexibility on a wider range of personal issues. A rising volume of parent-focused employment legislation is never going to sit well with a workforce destined to have fewer parents.

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics one in five women over the age of 40 are without children, compared with one in 10 some 20 years go.

If, as many demographic experts predict, that trend continues into the foreseeable future, flexible working rights may need to bend a little more - before they snap.