Monday, October 01, 2012

The Flexibility Trend

Over the span of history there has been an undoubted trend of improvement to work-life balance. The average working person in the 19th century worked an estimated 60 hours per week, whereas today in the UK the average is 42.7 hours.  Maternity and Paternity leave are both enshrined in law and in April 2011 new legislation came into affect increasing the flexibility of entitlement for both parents.

In  the last two decades  there has also been a considerable increase in other schemes that positively impact work-life balance, such as flexitime, home working and part-time working. Today, some 26% of employees are estimated to make use of flexible hours arrangements, some 25% occasionally work from home and 27% of UK employees work part-time.  The figures for all these statistics were between 10 and 15% in the Eighties.

Yet despite these trends there are some significant imbalances. One in six UK employees works 60 hours a week or longer.  There are also significant imbalances between the public and private sectors, and between large and small businesses.

Many public sector organisations have a considerable amount of schemes to assist work-life balance. These include provisions for:
  • Special leave including  bereavement leave, parental leave,  elderly or ill dependent leave
  • Career breaks and educational leave
  • Very flexible part-time work including term-time working
  • Job sharing
  • Time-off for community working
Whilst some larger private sector organisations offer a similar range of schemes, there are actually very few legal requirements for flexible working.  The employment act of 2002 introduced a parental leave provision whereby parents of children under 6, or disabled children under 18, are entitles to up to 4 weeks of unpaid leave each year.  For all parent of children under 16 you do have the right to ask for flexible working, and your employer must ‘reasonably’ consider it – but that’s about as far as it goes. The only other clear right that exists is for youths of 16 or 17, where employees must allow a degree or paid educational leave.

The argument for flexible working and other work-life balance schemes does have other potential benefits other than those for the employee.  Most surveys suggest there is an increase in morale, productivity and staff retention where employers offer good schemes. There are wider potential benefits too. The energy conservation benefits of home working as one example.

But despite the improvements in work-life balance schemes, there is still a long way to go. After all, 27% of people working flexibly leaves 73% of people who don’t, and 1 in 6 people working over 60 hours a week is 16%!

For any significant breakthrough or step forward there needs to be a mindset change, where employers challenge commonly held assumptions including:
  • Part-time workers are less committed that full-time employee
  • Job-sharing is impossible for important jobs
  • Homeworking or teleworking makes it hard to monitor what people are doing
  • It’s impossible to accommodate all these flexible working schemes if you’re a small  business
If these assumptions can be challenged and new models found, working life could be very different in 30 years time -  and if not we may well struggle to build an economy with more flexibility, less carbon emissions, greater employment and more social responsibility.   

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