Publications - Balancing Work and Family Life - Chapter 2


Print page

Chapter 2 - What are Family Friendly Working Arrangements?

2.1 Balancing work and family life

Achievement of an effective balance by men and women between the demands of the workplace and the home is of crucial importance to the long-term welfare and development of Irish society. As the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (1998) has noted, "The family is the crucible of the formation of all of us. It needs to be protected and it needs to be expanded in terms of the support given to it. The family is undoubtedly where people learn so many of the behaviours and attitudes that employers look for - consistency, loyalty, common sense, adaptability, flexibility, the ability to relate to their peers - behaviours and attitudes which, arguably, are seminally formed in the early years of life. ... The issue of families and work is one of the key issues that will dominate the early years of the Third Millennium. Family friendly working conditions and competitiveness are not a contradiction in terms. It is important that the issues of family and work reconciliation be included in all relevant political discussions if we are to create the possibility for parents and other people with family obligations to make real choices about their lives and find arrangements which fit them and their family members" (EFILWC 1998, p.2).

This challenge is being responded to in Ireland. Strengthening Families for Life (1998) states that, "It is the Commission's view that bringing about a suitable balance between work and family life is a key issue for Government and the social partners as we approach the new century" (p.133). Likewise, in Partnership 2000, the Government sought, in tandem with the development of a childcare strategy, to support the growth of family-friendly policies in employment. Such concerns are taken a step further by the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF, 2000) which provides a new National Framework for the Development of Family-Friendly Policies at the Level of the Enterprise (pp.42-44).

The reasons given for this prioritisation of family-friendly policies are strong and clear. "The emergence of a tightening labour market and the increased emphasis on human resources as a competitive element serve to underpin the importance of developing innovative ways of raising labour supply. Similarly, the importance of facilitating equality of opportunity for men and women in the workplace also underscores the desirability of developing policies that can assist parents in reconciling work and family life. Family-friendly policies can serve a dual purpose of contributing to the needs of the business as well as meeting the needs of employees with family responsibilities" (PPF 2000, p. 42). This study examines some of the implications of this approach in the commercial and non-commercial sectors.

2.2 Different types of flexibility

However, at the very outset, it is important to operationalise what is meant by workplace family friendly working arrangements, within the specific terms of reference for this study (see Chapter One). One of the difficulties in this respect is the highly dynamic character of such arrangements. By their very nature, such arrangements are subject to on-going change and development, which is both aided and abetted by rapid technological innovation. With this caveat in mind, it remains important, however, to define the main types of working arrangements covered by this research.

Broadly speaking, these types of working arrangement can be categorised into two broad groups in terms of their different flexibilities:

  • Temporal flexibility relates to variations in the number of hours worked and is by far the most commonly recognised form of flexible working at present in Ireland. Relevant flexible work arrangements include less than full-time working (including job-sharing and other forms of part-time working), flexitime, career breaks and term time working.
  • Locational Flexibility relates to the choice of working location and varying the geographical location of the workplace to meet the changing needs of employers and or employees. Such flexibilities would include teleplace and teleworking. This is a comparatively new form of flexible working which is rapidly developing with technological advances, particularly in the information technology (IT) area.

It is of course important to note that these categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, teleworking could be undertaken on a less than full-time basis. Similarly, an individual's opting for such arrangements will not necessarily remain constant over time. Indeed, the evidence indicates that an individual's preference for such arrangements often correlates closely with periods during which the achievement of an optimal balance between work and family demands is paramount.

2.3 Main types of temporal flexibility

Given the comparatively large number of temporal measures on the Irish scene at present, it is worthwhile reviewing specifically each of these main types of working arrangement. The majority of arrangements geared towards improving temporal flexibility have the potential to assist employees in balancing work and family responsibilities, while at the same time enabling employers to provide more responsive services to the public in the form of longer opening hours as well as retaining valued staff who may otherwise leave (see Blyton, 1996). The potential benefits of temporal and other forms of flexible working arrangements are discussed in more detail in Chapter Three. However, in order to clarify the types of arrangements covered by this study, each of the main types of flexible working arrangement are outlined briefly below.

  • Flexitime is one of the most common forms of temporal flexibility and allows employees to vary their starting and finishing times of work, outside a compulsory core-time, provided an agreed volume of hours are worked over a given remuneration period. For example, it became popular in the United Kingdom (UK) in the 1970s as a means of attracting and retaining staff, although evidence suggests that there has been limited expansion of flexitime arrangements in the UK since the 1980s (see Bryson, 1999). It is also worth noting that while 2.5 million employees in the UK were working flexible working hours in 1993, the take up of flexitime is much more common among women than men. Within the Irish context, in addition to the potential benefits from a caring viewpoint, flexitime has been advocated as a partial solution to the considerable commuting problems experienced by staff in the larger urban areas, in particular Dublin with its considerable journey to work problems.
  • Job-sharing is a key example of this type of flexibility in both Europe and the United States of America (USA) (see Fynes et al, 1996a). Job-sharing is certainly one of the longest established and most frequently adopted forms of temporal flexibility in the Irish public service (see Humphreys 1986 and Humphreys, Drew and Murphy 1999). Most typically, job-sharing refers to an arrangement whereby two employees share the same work of one full-time position, dividing pay and benefits pro rata to the time worked. Such arrangements often take the form of split weeks and split days (see Armstrong, 1997).
  • Having been introduced to the Irish public service on a pilot basis in 1997/98 opportunities for term-time working have now been further extended across Government Departments, with similar arrangements being introduced in the wider public service. Typically, such arrangements provide for unpaid absence during the summer period (July/August) to facilitate caring responsibilities during the school holidays.
  • Annualised hours' agreements are currently far less common in the Irish public service but are used in some commercial organisations. Such systems involve agreement between the employer and employee over the total hours worked annually. This gives management greater scope to vary the hours in any given period to match demand. For example, in the Netherlands, a number of enterprises operate shift systems, which are longer in times of heavy demand and shorter during quieter periods (see Blyton, 1996). Such arrangements also provide employees with the potential to customise their working time arrangements more effectively to meet their personal needs over a 12-monthly time frame.
  • Such arrangements can also be taken a step further. Fynes et al (1996a) highlight an arrangement which they describe as 'banking leave' arrangements. Using this system, points can be accumulated on the basis of attendance, shift or night work, weekend or bank holiday working. Employees can convert points gained into hours, which can be banked for future use at a time that suits both parties.
  • One of the most extreme examples of temporal flexibility takes the form of zero hours contracts. Under such arrangements, no formal commitment is made by the employer regarding the number of hours available, and the employee is on daily call, for example to cover absences or vacancies. While in principle, such an arrangement could offer employees considerable flexibility to tailor their work and other activities, the negative consequences for employees of such arrangements, include job insecurity and other limited terms and conditions of employment (see ICTU 1996).
  • Finally, many organisations use overtime as a means of coping with variation in demand, and as an alternative to other temporal forms of flexibility such as shift work or part time work, particularly in unionised environments (see Fynes et al, 1996a).

With regard to all of these flexible working arrangements, it must be remembered, however, that in Ireland "the development of flexible work practices is still at an early stage and is to a large extent confined to the State and semi-State sectors and to a relatively small number of private companies" (Commission on the Family 1998, p. 138). Therefore, although this study embraced both the public and private sectors and interviews were carried out across a range of organisations in these sectors, public service experiences will be often cited. This is for two main reasons (a) because there is generally more experience within this sector of implementing these work arrangements over a sustained period of time and (b) more evaluative evidence is also available to be drawn upon from the public sector.

However, the research team was able to draw upon the initial results from a major new study of family friendly working arrangements in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in Ireland (see Fisher 2000). Commissioned by the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform, on behalf of the Equality Authority, this study focuses on the situation in enterprises of up to 250 staff, a sector that in total accounts for nearly 50 per cent of total employment in Ireland. Together with earlier research focusing on the situation in the public service (see Humphreys, Fleming and O'Donnell 2000), these studies provide a wide-ranging picture of the extent, character and challenges facing the development of flexible working arrangements in the contemporary Irish labour market.

2.4 A variety of measures

As the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (2000) indicates "This National Framework does not attempt to impose any single measure or model of non-statutory family friendly policy or practice. Both ICTU and employers (IBEC and Public Sector employers) are committed to the development of such policies in every practical way. There are many examples of family-friendly workplace policies and practices to choose from, depending on the needs of both employees and employers" (p. 43). A number of family friendly/flexible working arrangements are identified, under PPF (2000), as appropriate for discussion at enterprise level by agreement between employers and unions. The measures include:

  • Job-sharing
  • Part-time work
  • Flexitime
  • Flexi-place/Teleworking
  • Term-time working.

For the purposes of this study, and to ensure consistency of research approach with the latest national level developments, this research focuses primarily on the main types of measure identified above by the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (2000). Having defined the main types of working arrangement covered by this study, it is now important to explore some of the principal advantages and disadvantages of these arrangements, from both the employer's and employee's perspective, as indicated by existing research evidence.

2.5 Key messages

The key messages identified in this chapter include:

  • Achievement of an effective balance by men and women between the demands of the workplace and the home is of crucial importance to the long-term welfare and development of Irish society.
  • Family friendly working conditions and competitiveness are not a contradiction in terms. Family-friendly policies can serve a dual purpose of contributing to the needs of the business as well as meeting the needs of employees with family responsibilities (Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, 2000).
  • Bringing about a suitable balance between work and family life is a key issue for Government and the social partners as we approach the new century (Strengthening Families for Life, 1998).
  • By their very nature, family friendly/flexible working arrangements are subject to on-going change and development, which is both aided and abetted by rapid technological innovation.
  • The development of flexible work practices is still at an early stage and is to a large extent confined to the State and semi-State sectors and to a relatively small number of private companies. Such arrangements provide many different forms of temporal and locational flexibility, ranging from flexitime to teleworking. They are evolving continuously.

Contents

Chapter One: Background and Introduction
Chapter Two: What are Family Friendly Working Arrangements?
Chapter Three: Why Work Flexibly?
Chapter Four: How Much Working is Flexible
Chapter Five: Changing Policy Perspectives
Chapter Six: Legal Perspectives
Chapter Seven: Workplace Perspectives
Chapter Eight: Key Issues and Challenges
Notes
Annex One Checklist for developing family friendly/flexible working arrangements in the workplace
Bibliography

Last modified:07/11/2008
 

 Related Topics

 
 

 Application Forms

 
 

 Intreo/Local Office Locator

 
Search for your local office
img