Flexible working: Blessing or curse?

February 20, 2010

When Nicola Schofield’s boss told her the firm she worked for was suffering from the financial crisis, she was more than happy to keep her job by working fewer hours.

“I have a four-year-old daughter who’s just started school,” she said. “My husband works away and I’m the constant element in my family. Now I work school hours, so I can drop her off and pick her up. The reduced pay is equal to the extra money I needed to put her in a nursery while I was working full time.”

Schofield’s boss, Vivienne Duke of the Leeds recruitment consultancy Equals One, said everyone in their small team of six worked flexibly. Duke herself works only four days a week, and the firm has recently taken on someone who works mostly from home. But while these arrangements were mutually convenient, Duke said they were prompted by economic necessity.

“Cost is the key issue,” she said. “We needed to reduce costs because we have less income at the moment. We had to cut back, but didn’t want to lose anyone from the team.”

Schofield said she believed that had she not been able to agree to work fewer hours she would have lost her job.

It’s a common dilemma. Andrew Walker of the pay and benefits consultancy Croner Reward said: “Flexible working is a very topical phrase. The question is: flexible for whom?”

He cited the recent case of digger manufacturer JCB, which offered its workforce a four-day week rather than redundancies. “Most people would rather have something than nothing, but it’s not really fair to call that ‘flexible’ because given the choice those employees would rather work five days and collect a full salary.”

Under current UK legislation more than 4.5m people qualify for the right to request flexible working arrangements as parents of children who are under six or disabled.

More than 90% of employers agreed to such requests last year. Despite the large take-up, however, business secretary Peter Mandelson said that, because of the recession, there would be a review of new legislation to extend the flexible working scheme to parents of all children under 16 next April.

Flexible working can include anything from shorter hours to term-time employment, late starts or working from home. But while some argue that flexibility is a useful tool that could help small and medium-sized firms reduce costs and ride out the recession without losing valuable skills, the government’s decision to review its proposal was welcomed by business groups that had expressed alarm at the original proposal.

The Institute of Directors claimed that the right to request more flexible working would “impose significant new burdens” on companies.

Sarah Veale, head of equality and employee rights at the TUC, described the government’s climbdown as a “typical knee-jerk wobble”. She did concede, however, that in any recession women, and particularly mothers, would be hardest hit.

A case in point is that of Sophie Jones (not her real name), who had built a successful career in financial services. She requested a flexible working arrangement so that she could look after her first child. It worked for two years but recently Sophie found herself out of a job.

“I don’t think the economic environment lends itself to flexible working at the moment,” she said. “For women, it’s a risk to draw attention to yourself in that way . . . if you want to hang on to your job.”

Few men take up the option of flexible working, although both sexes place an equally high value on work /life balance, a recent study showed. And many of the companies surveyed were surprised to learn that a large proportion of their male workforce already operated an informal system of flexible working, while women traditionally requested a formal arrangement.

Marina di Natale, chief financial officer at Evo Research, said asking for flexible working had transformed her life. “I’m part of a phenomenon of people in their late thirties who realised that they could work more productively by spending three days a week in the office and two days doing something different. I’m not a mother and I don’t have caring responsibilities – I just realised there was more to life [than working full-time] and now I’m writing a PhD in my free days. I have a friend in a similar position who spends her extra days working for a charity.”

Di Natale said her three days in the office were spent more efficiently and she was more productive and more loyal to her employer. “How much ‘face time’ you put in at the office is an antiquated idea,” she said. “Modern thinking is about getting the best performance out of someone and focusing on the end result – not how labour-intensive it was to get there.”

She admitted, however, that some sectors were better suited to this creative transformation than others. “City institutions will never truly embrace flexible working. It’s 7am until 7pm, no matter what the outcome.”

Walker of Croner Rewards said: “Not everyone can afford to work less, and have less money – and those benefits you give up now might be the ones you need in the future.

“The illusion of flexibility may prove to be just that. It might make you feel you are more in control of your destiny, but in these difficult times the truth is you’re probably not.”

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