Being too busy to develop new
working practices is a problem that affects smaller businesses
in particular. Using staff and time resources more effectively
requires an initial investment of the staff and time resources
you haven't got. Its a "Catch 22" situation.
The extent to which smaller businesses
(SMEs, in the jargon - small and medium-sized enterprises) are
adopting flexible work has been examined in the study SMEs
and Flexible Working Arrangements. The report forms a
companion volume to another work published by the Joseph
Rowntree Foundation on
Practices, which looks primarily at large organisations.
The study found that flexible working
arrangements, practised informally, are far more common in small
organisations than is often thought. In many cases,
organisations who said initially that they did not have flexible
working arrangements revealed that they did allow some
individuals to work flexibly when site interviews took place.
The researchers divide types of employer into 3
groups in terms of their adoption of flexible work: holistic,
selective, and resistant - in other words, those who go for it,
those who do a bit, and those who don't.
Some differences in the workforce profiles are
note in the different types of organisation. Those with a
holistic approach tend to have a majority of female workers,
while those which are resistant have a majority of "prime age"
(25-40) or younger male employees. These alpha males also
tended to be high earners, and their households, where they were
not single, were less likely to be heavily reliant on two
incomes. Married women in holistic organisations, on the other
hand, tended to be on lower or middle incomes and were
contributing a higher proportion of household income.
Drivers for flexibility in
The main drivers for providing flexibility
- employee requests
- personal experiences of employers and
senior managers (but not particularly linked to one gender)
- external or published evidence of
improved profits from staff retention and productivity gains
- face-to-face recommendations through
workshops or seminars.
These are pretty much the same kind of drivers
as are found in larger organisations - though one would expect
that the first two points would be of greater significance in
organisations where there is not the time or the managerial/HR
resource to research and attend workshops.
It is worth reflecting on the category "SME",
which covers organisations of up to 500 employees. Excluding
sole traders (who can of course determine their own working
arrangements), this sector accounts for 48% of employees in the
UK. But there is a big difference in the task of managing
employees as an organisation grows. With 10 or 20 employees, ad
hoc and informal arrangements may be fine; but at 50 or more
there are good reasons to become more formal with policies. And
an employer is by then also more likely to be in need of a
dedicated HR resource, and be more willing to invest in systems
to manage and track disparate working patterns.
Barriers to flexible work
The employers questioned expressed a number of
fears about introducing flexible work, including:
- the additional work and red-tape which
came from changes in the law
- the loss of clients
- employee productivity falling
- their inability to substitute for
certain skills if certain employees were absent
- management finding it difficult to
manage or administer the flexibility.
Concern was also felt that the government, in
introducing new workers rights (e.g. to parental leave, etc)
failed to understand the concerns of small business. There was,
however, no evidence from the companies where flexible working
had been introduced that they had added to managers' workloads
in the longer term.
To overcome these barriers, organisations need:
- a change of mind set
- management systems based on trust
- being open to different ways of
organising work and to using new technology
- better communication between employers,
or between managers and employees.
The study highlights the idea that employers
should have a right to present a "business case" to their
employer for having flexible work arrangements. The government
is currently looking a right for parents to have a request for
flexible working considered by their employer.
In our view this kind of request-driven process
is only part of the story. It puts a considerable burden of
informed awareness on the employee both of the practicable
options and the business priorities of the employer.
Equally important is that owners and managers in
SMEs should have a high awareness of the business benefits of
the various forms of flexible working. These are not currently
being mediated successfully by the small business support
agencies, despite a few examples of good practice. These kind of
agencies tend only to reach a minority of their target group,
and their advisors may not have the range of necessary skills to
give effective advice on flexible working.
This is an area where the government and local
agencies could be doing more to support smaller organisations in
developing effective policies and practices - in particular by
helping them with the time and resource investment needed to
change the way people work, and to develop coherent and