Publications - Balancing Work and Family Life - Chapter 3


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Chapter 3 - Why Work Flexibly?

3.1 Balanced lives

Clare (1998) lucidly states both the aspiration and vision of what could be achieved by the effective reconciliation of work and family life. "There need be no tension between family life and occupational life. Each is so crucially dependent on the other. Family friendly policies are a first step in creating people who are more balanced and more mature, not just in their family lives, but in their occupational and professional lives as well. A rounded citizen in the Third Millennium will be someone who feels comfortable that they can express their personal skills and abilities in a work situation as part of the greater community, while at the same time being able in a mature way to form an intimate relationship and foster it. They will be able to create an environment where the next generation can be cultivated and feel as good as any human being can feel about the way they do all those things" (cited in EFILWC 1998, p.2).

3.2 An international trend

Such an important social vision also has key economic drivers. Across the European Union (EU) as well as in Ireland itself, there has grown an increasing recognition that fundamental changes in the make-up of the labour market, rapidly changing technologies and other economic and social factors have focused attention on the potential role to be played by more active promotion of flexible working arrangements in the modern workplace. While the primary interest in such developments for the purposes of this study relate to their potentially "family-friendly" role in the workplace, it is also important to understand their wider role in a rapidly changing labour market. It is also vital to gain an appreciation of the potential benefits and disadvantages that such working arrangements present, as already identified in the literature.

For example, the importance of labour flexibility as a contributor to economic growth has been highlighted by both the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union (EU) (see Blyton, 1996). Given the increase in flexible working practices that is evident in many countries, some commentators have suggested that "work as we know it may be disappearing" (see Emmott and Hutchinson (1998) p. 229). Whilst dramatic, such an observation has some justification given the decline of full-time employment, coupled with increased part-time working, and the proliferation of 'atypical' forms of work arrangement. At the same time, this changing emphasis from full to part-time employment has occurred hand in hand with a shift, in many national labour markets, from manufacturing to service industries, as well as with rising female participation rates (see Chapter Four). Increasing skills shortages are forcing employers to look outside the traditional pool of recruits. As a consequence, employers are increasingly adopting flexible employment arrangements in response to increasing demand for non-'full-time work' by existing and prospective employees.

3.3 The flexible firm

It is not feasible to discuss conceptual approaches to flexible working without reference to the work of Atkinson (1984), who developed the concept of "the flexible firm" in the recognition of changes which had taken place in the nature and composition of the workforce at that time. In the model of the "flexible firm" (see Figure overleaf), Atkinson propounded the concept of "core" versus "peripheral" workers. Core workers are a permanent component of a firm's workforce who deliver functional flexibility through their capacity to undertake a wide range of tasks. In contrast, peripheral workers provide a firm with numerical flexibility, with their numbers increasing or reducing with changing labour market conditions. The flexible firm approach involves a reorganisation of a firms' internal labour markets and their division into separate components, wherein workers' experiences and employer's expectations are increasingly differentiated (see Atkinson and Gregory 1986).

 
Figure: The Flexible Firm

Flexible Firm Diagram

 

Source: Atkinson (1984)
 
Bryson (1999) argues that training/development and the involvement of employees are more likely to be directed at core workers, while 'peripheral' workers will be exposed more and more to 'raw' market forces. In times of recession, peripheral or non full-time workers are much more susceptible to lay-offs and redundancies. It is not insignificant that atypical workers, including those job-sharing, working part-time or on short-term contracts, are very clearly located on the periphery of the workforce under this approach.

There is little doubt that the flexible firm model was influential in the development of employment policy in UK private and public sector organisations in recent years (see Lawton and Rose 1994). The extent to which this placement of atypical workers as peripheral workers truly reflects the reality of life in Irish organisations remains to be seen. There is certainly evidence to show that, in the Civil Service, opting for flexible, family friendly working arrangements, such as job-sharing, is perceived as unlikely to enhance longer-term career prospects (see Humphreys, Drew and Murphy 1999). However, what is clear is that, given the frequent gender differentiation between core and periphery workers, it is absolutely vital from both the equality and 'family-friendly' viewpoints that flexible working arrangements move in from the periphery to the core of organisational activity and thinking.

3.4 Employer benefits from flexible working

Bryson (1999) argues that while concepts such as the flexible firm can be useful in shedding light on changes in the nature of work and work organisation, they may be less useful in explaining the issues facing managers in organisations regarding how best to manage and utilise labour to achieve organisational objectives. It is useful therefore, to consider how macro-level trends can influence practical choices at organisation level in the introduction of flexible working arrangements by employers (see Emmott and Hutchinson 1998).

These influences can be broadly considered under a number of headings:

  • Increased competition, which puts pressure on organisations to reduce long-term investment in labour costs, for example through the use of short and fixed term contracts.
  • Information technology (IT) - for example 'teleworking' is made possible through IT by the use of networked computers using Intranet and Internet technologies. Similarly, Claydon (1997) argues that the acceleration of technological change implies that traditional job descriptions have been eroded and thus there is a need to reorganise work accordingly along more flexible lines.
  • Changing trends in labour demand and supply give rise to changes in both the types of employment and employees available. In a discussion of this issue, Bryson (1999) suggests that "there has been growing pressure from groups who find it hard to comply with a full-time nine to five routine" (p. 70). As a consequence of such changes in labour supply, employers are increasingly adopting more flexible arrangements for the utilisation of labour, such as part-time work and job-sharing (see Blyton 1996 and Claydon 1997).
  • Government and EU policies, e.g. legislation on working time, part time employment, which either preclude or encourage the adoption of flexible working and family friendly arrangements (see Chapters Five and Six).

A range of advantages for employers with regard to the use of flexible working practices can be identified (see Emmott and Hutchinson, 1998, and Fynes et al, 1996a) as follows:

  • ability to match work provisions more closely with customer/product demand;
  • reduced fixed costs e.g. teleworking;
  • aids recruitment and retention of employees;
  • increases productivity and efficiency;
  • improves staff morale;
  • reduces stress and sick leave;
  • reduces absenteeism; and
  • provides a wider pool of potential employees.
    The benefits and shortcomings of flexible, family-working arrangements are discussed in more detail in Chapter Seven.

3.5 Employee benefits from flexible working

Emmott and Hutchinson (1998) highlight survey evidence which indicates that, from the employee's perspective, flexible working can result in increased motivation and job satisfaction, and the ability to balance more effectively work and family responsibilities. These authors also argue that "as women form a larger part of the workforce, many employers have developed family-friendly policies which effectively 'customise' working patterns to suit employee's individual circumstances" (p. 238).

This argument suggests that the introduction of flexible work arrangements has the potential to provide greater equality of opportunity for women, in the form of enhanced access to employment. The literature is, however, divided on the link between flexible working arrangements and addressing inequality. Writers such as Legge (1998) have warned that the introduction of job-sharing and other arrangements to assist employees in balancing work and family demands may serve to collude with the unequal distribution of domestic and childcare tasks, thus further reinforcing the vertical and horizontal segregation of women in the workforce. Legge (1998) also points out that the majority of part-time jobs tend to predominate in the services sector, a sector which she argues is notorious for low pay and the unskilled nature of work.

Legge (1998) suggests that in the public service, part-time workers tend to be clustered in the lower levels of such skilled and professional work as is available to them. It is also suggested that non full-time work can also limit opportunities for promotion and result in unequal treatment e.g. pay, benefits (see Emmott and Hutchinson, 1998). Finally, Brewster (1998) stresses that while flexible working practices can provide additional opportunities for employees to balance work and family responsibilities, there are risks to the individual including potential discrimination, and increased insecurity. Given the predominance of women in the lower grades of the Irish Civil Service, and the perceived detrimental impact of atypical working practices upon career progression, the foregoing arguments need to be addressed from a gender equality perspective (see Humphreys, Drew and Murphy 1999).

3.6 Resistance to flexible working

The introduction of flexible, family friendly working arrangements implies change. As with any change process, resistance is inevitable (see Huczynski and Buchanan, 1991). Resistance may come from a number of sources. For example, where the implementation of flexible working arrangements is employee-driven, employers may not perceive that there are benefits in such arrangements for them. Concerns of employers in relation to such initiatives may include increased training costs, higher direct costs (part timers who receive pro-rata benefit), communications difficulties, and the increased challenges presented by managing a flexible workforce (see Emmott and Hutchinson, 1998).

Research also suggests that while senior management may adopt and encourage the use of flexible working arrangements, it is often less senior managers who may resist innovative programmes and policies, since they tend to focus on what they believe will be in their short-term best interest when making decisions as to whether subordinates should avail of such policies. Thus, first line managers are seen as one of the key groups who must buy in to changes in the nature of work arrangements (see Powell, 1996).

Unions and other staff representatives may also resist the introduction of flexible working arrangements. It has been suggested that trade unions in Ireland and the UK have been slow to respond to the changes implied in the use of flexible working in comparison to Nordic Countries (see Brewster 1998). This problem may be exacerbated by the fact that part time workers and those in atypical employment tend to be characterised by lower levels of unionisation than workers on full-time conventional contracts (see Roche, 1994). Similarly, Fynes et al (1996a) argue that unions may fear that demands for more flexible working will erode their bargaining position, and thus unions are often reluctant to reconsider the standard, 'male oriented' working week.

Finally, employees themselves may resist and fear the introduction of flexible working arrangements. As indicated above, those working in some forms of atypical employment may be more exposed to issues such as job insecurity, and inequality in areas such as pay and conditions of employment. The policy and legal issues raised by flexible working arrangements are discussed in more detail in Chapters Five and Six. Above all, such concerns need to be addressed constructively through a partnership approach.

3.7 Key messages

A number of key messages emerge from this analysis:

  • Family friendly policies are a first step in creating people who are more balanced and more mature, not just in their family lives, but in their occupational and professional lives as well.
  • Across the European Union (EU), there is a growing recognition that fundamental changes in the labour market, rapidly changing technologies and other economic and social factors focus attention on the potential role to be played by more active promotion of flexible working arrangements in the modern workplace.
  • Employers are increasingly adopting flexible employment arrangements in response to increasing demand for non-'full-time work' by existing and prospective employees. Previous research identifies key potential benefits for employers and employees alike.
  • However, the introduction of flexible, family friendly working arrangements implies change. As with any change process, resistance is inevitable. Such areas of concern need to be addressed constructively through a partnership approach.
  • Above all, it is absolutely vital from both the equality and 'family-friendly' viewpoints that flexible working arrangements move in from the periphery to the core of organisational activity and thinking.

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
 

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