Flexible hours

Corporate Woman in the AFR this week had a disappointed commentary on the Federal Budget. The column was calling for a bit more compulsion from the government around flexible working hours – pointing out that business needs to become more friendly towards women/carers who are working, rather than government using the tax system to make child care cheaper:

“Trying to get more women to return to or stay in the workforce, however, is not about adjusting the mechanisms around formal child care alone, even if this is overdue…. But there was an expectation the budget might introduce some measures to tackle another equally important element in the debate on female participation in the workfroce – a restructuring of workplaces so women can stick with their jobs once they become parents or carers. Introducing the legal right to request flexible employment options for parents or carers would be a good start.”

The Labor Party, in a fairly unreported aspect of its new Industrial Relations Policy, has said that:

A Rudd Labor Government will guarantee a right for parents to request flexible work arrangements until their child reaches school age.

I’m a strong believer in the need for a employers to be flexible, particularly for those who have caring responsibilities. I’ve blogged about it many times before. But I found it interesting that as an employer in my corporate job, my first reaction was slightly negative to the idea that I could be forced to be flexible.

I have a team of around 30 professionals directly or indirectly reporting to me. Roughly 20% have some form of part time arrangement, ranging from 20 hours worked in two full days in the office to someone who works four days most of the year, and five days during our (predictable) busy periods.  I’ve actively used the possibility of part time work as a recruiting strategy, with some success, as my experience is that I get access to much better people that way (male and female – male actuaries are the only men I know who not only talk wistfully about part time work, but actively seek it).

But I still worried about the idea of compulsion. I think it is because I have tended to offer flexible arrangements to the best people. The trade off has been in both directions. As an employer, I get the best out of someone – I get them at their freshest, and at the same time, they get the work life balance they want. But without any evidence, I worry about what it would be like if I had to offer the same flexibility to everyone.

The Corporate Woman article suggests that making flexible working hours compulsory has had any particularly dire effects in other countries.

Since the Employment Act 2002, according to the Confederation of British Industry, employers have accepted request to work more flexibly in nine out of 10 cases. UK analysis has also found many companies had already been offering similar choices to employees anyway, so had not found the legislative requirements too onerous.

The government really needs to move on this. Good employers are providing flexibility, at little or no cost (particularly when the benefits of access to a larger pool of workers are taken into account). I don’t believe that there is a major downside in forcing companies to understand the benefits of being flexible with their workforce. Sure, as an employer, I have nebulous worries about the effects of force. But all suggestions that have been made are about employees having the legal right to request flexible work. Employers can refuse for reasonable business reasons in the UK.

Being forced to articulate those reasonable business reasons will probably force many employers to think about it for the first time ever. And realise that that there are no business reasons to refuse.

  3 comments for “Flexible hours

  1. May 18, 2007 at 12:11 am

    I have to say, I’m somewhat stunned by the idea that the need for flexibility stops when the kids are school-aged, too. I’m sure it would be politically unpopular (it certainly would be here) to insist that employers be flexible for 18 or more years of an employee’s work life, but I’ve found it much more necessary to have a flexible schedule with my daughter in elementary school than I ever did with the daycare that my kids attend/ed. Perhaps this is a US difference, but the schools here are still very much set up around the idea that there is one parent who is able to be home, or to come to school, in the middle of the work day (delayed openings, in-school events, relying on volunteers to run the book fair, be room parents, etc.).

  2. May 20, 2007 at 4:54 pm

    Flexibility is definitely going to get trickier at school age, I think. We also have a lot of part-time staff, or staff with flexible arrangements (I have a standing leave early, depart early arrangement, for example, though I don’t use it as often as I should) but find that the most talented individuals (who could manage it best, to the point of being more productive through better balanced lives) are very bad at taking up flexibility. Where as the, ah, less talented absolutely milk it. Though it would be fair to say that it makes zero impact on their output…

  3. May 20, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    A parenting email list I’m on periodically has a discussion of when children need parents at home the most, and the consensus is that school years are harder in many ways than preschool years.

    In Australia, schools do rely as well on having a few at-home parents around to volunteer for things, but they are set up pretty well for working parents as well, with pre-school and after-school care generally available on site (although at some schools it’s hard to get into, as the physical space is limited). So the limits on working are more emotional than practical (which is true, albeit in different ways, all the way through parenthood, I think).

    I think politically, a politician calling for employers to be forced into flexibility could only go as far as school years – it’s a hard enough sell as it is (which is why I found my reaction as an employer so interesting).

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