Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Flexible working for all should be the norm

In delaying the extension of flexible working to cover all employees, the government has missed a rather large trick. Omitted from the Queen’s Speech, space was instead found for legislation which will allow the sharing of maternity leave between both parents. Overly-worried about burdening business at such an unsettling time has convinced ministers to hold back for a while.

Yet many of their concerns are unfounded. A freedom of information request last year discovered that of the 218,100 claims made to employment tribunals in 2010/11, only 277 were in relation to employers not complying with flexible working laws. The negative impact of existing legislation has therefore proven to be negligible.

Under current law, first implemented under Labour in 2003 and further amended in the years that followed, any employee with children under 17, to take one example, (an estimated 10 million workers), has the right to ask for flexible working (anything from flexi time to part time work to homeworking), but not necessarily the right to have it. An employer must have a good business case for turning someone down.

Research carried out last month by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the world’s largest Chartered HR body, found that an impressive 96% of firms offered flexible working arrangements to some employees, with around three quarters of workers choosing to take them up on it. An even larger number did so in small or ‘micro’ companies. Rather than it being cumbersome, the CIPD’s report revealed that just 3% of these businesses reported problems, thus allaying the fears of those concerned about extending existing legislation.
And it is with good reason that these figures are so overwhelmingly positive. Ben Willmott, CIPD’s head of public policy, believes critics today, like those a decade ago, should look at the evidence:

“More than seven out of ten employers report that flexible working supports employee retention, motivation and engagement. Almost two third of employers believe flexible working supports their recruitment activities, while half believe it has a positive impact on reducing absence as well as on boosting productivity.”
Not only this, but studies have shown, unsurprisingly, that a happy workforce is also a healthy workforce.

It’s no wonder that older workers have complained about feeling excluded from a law which mainly benefits those with young families. More than a quarter of people aged between 45 and 54 felt their own needs have been ignored, with some saying it has led to workplace conflict.
However, there are signs that the never-ending economic woes are causing some employees to shun flexible working in favour of what has been described as ‘presenteeism;’ a feeling that being seen in the office, working conventional hours, is to be expected right now. A hardwired mindset which embraces the 9-5 office culture seems to be in vogue once again. This despite a separate study by O2 which found that four in ten businesses admitted that flexible working boosted productivity and helped to retain staff. Old habits die hard.

But, it is precisely in today’s climate that companies can ill afford to go back on the progress made over the last ten years. According to Alan Kirkham, service director at Wakefield council, government cuts are forcing local authorities, now more than ever, to look for innovative ways to economise.
Reducing running costs by freeing up office space is one such idea. This means having a more agile workforce with many being able to work from home, already leading to a 20% increase in staff productivity in Wakefield’s housing department. Kirkham predicts this approach will have a transformative effect on local government as a whole, especially when it is being asked to do more for less.

According to the CBI, one of the most obvious advantages of flexible working is still to be seen. It forecasts future success in curtailing congestion on the roads and easing pressure on public transport. According to its 2010 report Tackling Congestion, Driving Growth, changing work patterns has already coincided with a fall in the number of commute trips per person, particularly in the last five years.
Their figures show 89% of employers now offering flexible working, compared to just 30% in 1999. Rather than just concentrating on work-life balance issues, they urge bosses to see the gains that are to be had in reducing staff’s commuting time, which if replicated across the board, would have a marked impact on the transport and road network.

New technologies and huge advances in communication should make this all possible. Within 20 or 30 years, the wearing, time-consuming, commute can become the exception rather than the rule. Only ingrained cultural barriers and government hesitancy stand in our way of truly reforming the way we all work.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Monday 18th June 2012

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