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Flexibility Briefing Paper 

Employability and Access to Work

Distributing work fairly and helping people back into work

Many people are excluded from work on account of their domestic circumstances or physical problems they face in travelling to a place of work. The new information and communications technologies (ICT) can overcome many of these constraints by bringing work to the worker - as long as companies and organisations are aware of the possibilities and are prepared to break out of traditional ways of thinking and adopt new "location independent" ways of working.

This briefing paper examines:

  • the various social groups who can benefit from gaining electronic access to work
  • the reasons for and the benefits of introducing more flexible approaches to work location
  • current examples of innovative working practices which have brought work opportunities to disadvantaged and mobility-restricted groups
  • likely developments over the next few years
  • issues to address in promoting best practice.

The aim of this paper is to demonstrate how ICT can be used to promote equal opportunities and allow employers to tap in to the skills of many workers currently disadvantaged in the labour market.


"Going to work": Many of the difficulties faced by individuals who are disadvantaged in the workplace are linked to the imperative to "go to work". That one leaves the home to go to work has become an accepted norm in the industrial age: travelling long distances is commonplace in an age of mass transit systems and personal motorised transport.
Restricted mobility: Generally we accept the disadvantages routine travel to work brings, in return for the economic benefits. But there are many groups in society whose mobility is restricted, typically through:
  • temporary illness or disablement
  • permanent disability, or long-term illness
  • childcare responsibility
  • caring for sick/disabled relatives
  • not owning a vehicle/not being able to drive in an area where there is a "public transport vacuum".

Amongst those classed as seeking work, men are in the majority in the first two categories, while women dominate the latter three. There is an increasing public policy focus on such groups within the context of analysing - and seeking remedies for - social exclusion. The culture of commuting is a major contributor to social exclusion in these instances.

Work follows the worker: The use of ICT offers a flexibility of location which can help to overcome mobility restrictions. The essence of the advantage is that the rigid connection between work and a physical workplace is severed: modern ICT allows access to work even where physical access to the workplace remains problematic.

Work may be undertaken at home, or closer to home. In many cases people in the categories above can - and may even prefer to - work in the "normal" workplace for some of the time, but for medical or caring reasons cannot sustain a full working day, or work every day.

Equalising opportunity: The key point is that ICT may be used as a vehicle for equalising opportunity. This has knock-on implications for HR practices, particularly in relation to sex and disability discrimination practices. Case law is beginning to develop in the US in this regard.

Current practices

Opening doors to employment through flexibility: Flexible – or at least non-standard - working arrangements have been common for many years amongst people with caring responsibilities or disabilities. Mostly these have taken the form of temporal flexibility, that is flexibility in the number and arrangement of working-hours. Examples of this include part-time working, term-time working, job-share, annual hours and flexible daily hours.
Flexitime: These forms of working are usually classed as "flexible", in that the hours of work vary from the 9-5 norm, and are tailored more to suit the needs of the employee while still satisfying the requirement of the employer.

One characteristic of modern "flexitime" schemes is that it puts greater responsibility into the employees' hands for organising their work. There are a number of models for this, and a variety of different methods for monitoring both hours and performance.

Flexiplace: "Flexiplace" schemes (as at Oxfordshire County Council) take flexitime a stage further; and are in many ways a natural evolution from it. Flexiplace allows employees to organise their work more effectively not only in terms of when it is done, but where it is done also. In particular it allows workers to eliminate unnecessary journeys back to base, and to avoid travelling at congested peak periods, as well as to seek the most appropriate location for different types of work.
Reducing stress: One key aim of such new ways of working is to reduce stress. The CBI have estimated that absenteeism and staff turnover due to stress cost UK industry 1.3 billion per year. The Health and Safety executive calculate that 183,000 workers suffer work-related stress each year.

Recent court cases have established that employers can be liable if they fail to identify and act to remedy stress in the workplace. Eliminating difficult journeys and allowing work to take place in less stressful environments are two practical options. Failure to allow this where it is a viable option could have serious consequences.

Achieving a home/work balance: Often a primary source of stress is coping with conflicting roles. These often collide most severely at the home/work interface. Today's worker is often employee, parent, chauffeur, nurse, homework mentor, elder-care organiser. Rigid separation of these roles is usually expected, but in practice is often difficult. Children get sick, childminders don't turn up, work spills over into the evenings.

The result is that individuals can feel extremely stressed, feeling that whatever they are doing, somebody is being let down, and feeling under constant pressure to move onto the next role. Incorporating time-wasting travel into this multi-skilled and multi-role lifestyle adds to the pressure - and commuting itself is generally a stressful experience.

Many home-based telework schemes include "achieving a better home/work balance" amongst their objectives. The outcome is in most cases less stressed and more productive workers, and in particular a working environment which is more amenable to people with demanding caring roles or who find either travel or sustained work in one location physically challenging.

Overcoming geographical barriers to work: In the instances considered so far, the access-to-work difficulties relate to constraints that make travel to work (at times) difficult. The assumption is, however, that a journey from home to work is in principle possible - for example when the children are at school, or when are older, or for someone without the limiting illness or disability.

However, there are also instances when the distance from the workplace is too great for a viable daily commute. In such circumstances ICT helps with regard to access to work in 2 distinct areas:

1) Retaining and recruiting key staff: Where a company wishes to retain or recruit an employee who lives/is going to live far away. It may be that the partner of a valued employee has to move for their work. Rather than lose the employee, it is becoming increasingly common for companies to come to new working arrangements which involve teleworking to a greater or lesser extent, either working from home or working out of a local office. Sometimes hybrid arrangements emerge which involve staying over for a couple of days while working the remainder of the time remotely.
2) Route into the jobs market: Where workers live in less accessible areas, with very limited work opportunities locally and which are not suited to their skills. In these instances working down the wire can be the primary route into the job market.

The position for the employee in these two situations is likely to be very different. In the first case the employee is a known quantity and is in demand. In the second this may well not be the case, and how such workers market their skills and find work is a key consideration. Enabling work to find its way electronically to rural areas may be crucial to the survival of rural, particularly remote rural, communities.

Industrial injury: Between the ages of 50 and pensionable age, disabled workers are three times more likely to be without work than non-disabled people of the same age. This is higher than the ratio for economically active disabled people as a whole. Often disabling injuries sustained at this age, or the onset of illnesses which inhibit the ability to work, lead in effect to the end of a person's working life.

This need not be the case. A more flexible approach to location and hours, plus appropriate retraining, can overcome the need for enforced premature retirement, or taking menial work nearby which fails to make use of the individual's skills or potential.

Putting theory into practice

Workers with disabilities work from home… There are increasing numbers of people with disabilities working from home using ICT. One example is AA call centre operators. While the AA has retained its large office-based call centre operation, it is also using a network of home-based teleworkers, all of whom are disabled.
….or from telework centres: However, many disabled workers feel isolated by their disabilities and actively want to leave the house in order to work. One option is teleworking centres adapted to their needs. The EC COMBAT project has successfully set up call centres for workers with disabilities in Dublin and Barcelona.

One feature of these has been the incorporation of appropriate assistive technology to adapt equipment to the particular needs of workers. The term "disability" covers a multitude of conditions and needs. It is often argued that the word "disabled" is misapplied to workers, as it is the workplace which is disabling. That is, the workplace is designed without regard to the needs of society as a whole, and effectively excludes people who interface with their work in different ways.

Parents of terminally ill children… Huge demands are placed on the parents of persistently or terminally ill children. One organisation set up to deal with this is the Nigel Clare Network Trust (NCNT), named after two children who died after long illnesses and many years of caring by their parents. The trust was set up to help parents and employers adjust to the demands of long term caring, by providing equipment and support to work from home.
…even all parents: Similar though less critical considerations apply to all parents. A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research found that work patterns are the single most important determinant of fathers' relationship with their children: 82% of fathers work full-time, for an average 47 hours a week, not including travelling time. This situation has led to what has been called "a deficit of women in the workplace, and a deficit of fathering in the home".

Other research has found that one in three people caring for an elderly relative also has children under sixteen.

The DFEE Managers' Guide to Teleworking recommends teleworking as a way to overcome such problems, partly on the basis that it allows workers to juggle the time of work around other responsibilities. This may be true of some work, but certainly not all (e.g. the AA distributed call centre workers). Being at home or nearer to home does not allow the worker to perform two roles at once: rather it does ease considerably the problems associated with organising childcare etc.

Retaining key workers: As one might expect telework is increasingly common in Sweden, where a geographically dispersed population, an advanced telecommunications market and a progressive social model combine to encourage innovative working practices. It is becoming increasingly common for organisations in the public sector in particular to offer teleworking as an option to retain valued staff when they move further away.
Being in lots of places at once: In 1995 the Swedish Culture minister set up a remote office to cope with the different demands of being a constituency MP and a minister - and she was also a working mother. Being in touch with all areas of her work wherever she was based was critical. In the UK one of the most "wired" MPs is Paddy Ashdown, who manages a highly itinerant life and separate roles in his constituency, at Westminster and as party leader by extensive use of ICT. However, one does not have to be a politician to have the imperative to be in touch with several locations at once.

Future developments

Portfolio man and woman? The "flexibilisation" and casualisation of the workforce are widely predicted to continue, with the decline of the job or career for life. Tomorrow's successful worker must be adaptable, willing to learn new skills and to change jobs numerous times or take on varying kinds of work at once.

The other demands in our lives however tend to be less flexible and thrive on security rather than insecurity. If workforce trends emerge as predicted, workers with marketable skills who are comfortable taking on work from a variety of sources, mediated through ICT, has a head start.

Phased retirement: With an increasingly ageing population, and decreasing numbers of younger workers supporting an increasingly dependent population, there are likely to be trends towards phased retirement. This dovetails with moves to combat ageism at work.

Older workers who are willing to work flexibly are likely to find themselves highly marketable, particularly if they can take on work from anywhere using electronic communications.

Disability discrimination case law: The Disability Discrimination Act requires employers to make "reasonable accommodation" for the needs of workers (or applicants for work) with disabilities. What this and other terms in the Act mean is likely to be defined by a mixture of ministerial decree and case law as it emerges through tribunals and the courts.

In the US, where the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has similar phrasing, recent cases have specified that teleworking may in certain instances qualify as a "reasonable accommodation" - for example in the case of a disabled worker required to travel long distances when her firm downsized. Another decision supported the right of a woman who experienced complications during pregnancy to work from home.

How ICT can be used to implement reasonable accommodation, by extending the workplace beyond its physical confines, is worth thinking about in advance of the case law.

The Trojan horse for innovation: Innovations brought in to help people with disabilities often have wider applications and are taken up on a larger scale - the typewriter is one obvious example.

People with disabilities working remotely - whether from home, site to site or being the person who teleconferences at meetings - will set practical examples that others will follow. It may be down to them to demonstrate how effectively work can be done "down the wire".

Not all good news, perhaps: The use of ICT to provide access to work where previously it was problematic has many benefits. However, bringing work home can create its own set of problems. The blurring of the division between home and work can have a negative as well as positive impact, by bringing the stress of the workplace into the home, or feeling that there is no escape from work. Dealing with these is part of the HR and management challenges presented by new ways of working.

Issues to address

Promoting best practice, training and helping workers to market: The key issues to address in the use of ICT for promoting access to work are:
  • spreading awareness of the realistic possibilities, amongst both employers and those in search of work
  • analysing the labour market in terms of people who are "excluded" from work by constraints on their access to workplaces
  • establishing best practice and guidelines for promoting equal employability
  • marketing the skills of ICT literate workers to both local employers and further afield
  • training or retraining for electronically mediated working.

Further information

On workers with disabilities, information on the EC COMBAT project is available from HOP Associates

A useful booklet has also been published by DGXIII of the European Commission, Older People and People with Disabilities in the Information Society (1998). 

Older but still relevant and also published by the Commission is a collection of essays edited by Stephen von Tetzchner, Issues in Telecommunications and Disability.

The UK Online for Business website, explores telematics initiatives for regeneration.

The US Office of Workplace Initiatives, , has useful information and examples of family-friendly and equal opportunities initiatives.

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