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Family-friendly employment: who's doing what and why

and the business case for doing it

Who is introducing family-friendly working practices, and why? What sort of practices do they favour? And do they bring any business benefits?

These are the kinds of question examined in a new study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Nature and Pattern of Family-friendly Employment in Britain. The results form a compelling analysis of developments so far in the availability and uptake of family-friendly working practices - but also some intriguing areas where the answers raise further questions.

Headline results

The researchers found that family-friendly policies were more likely to be found

  • in large organisations

  • in public sector organisations

  • where there are lower degrees of competition

  • where there are recognised unions

  • where there are resources of HR and good performance

  • where there is high employee involvement in decision-making

  • in workforces with larger proportions of women

  • where there is a highly educated workforce who have large amounts of discretion in organising their work.

The study also found that in general family-friendly policies were associated with improvements in productivity and performance.  But the "business case" is one of marginal improvements, or at least an argument against the view that the costs of family-friendly policies outweigh the benefits.

What kind of practices

The practices under the microscope in this analysis are:

  • parental leave

  • paternity leave

  • scheme of time off for emergencies

  • job sharing

  • term-time working

  • working at or from home during normal working hours

  • ability to change form full to part-time hours

  • workplace or other nursery provision

  • help with child-care costs

  • flexi-time

The analysis is largely based on data from the Workplace Employee Relations Survey* (WERS) of 1998, which asked a wide range of questions not normally covered in other workforce surveys on equal opportunities, family-friendly policies, performance and payment issues, etc. It also asked questions of both managers and employees, so that awareness of and uptake of policies could be measured against availability of family-friendly working practices.

Differences in the effects of different practices

The study looked at several areas of performance:

  • financial performance

  • labour productivity

  • quality of product or service

  • value of sales

  • days of absence

  • labour turnover.

These were assessed through a mangers' questionnaire

How different kinds of practices were associated in the findings with different levels of performance improvement. For examploe:

Above-average labour productivity was associated with

  • (non-statutory) parental leave

  • paternity leave

  • the ability to change from full-time to part-time work

  • having a broad range of family-friendly policies.

Improvements in quality performance were associated with:

  • term-time working

  • the ability to change from full-time to part-time work

  • employer providing help with child-care

  • having a broad range of family-friendly policies.

Reduced labour turnover was associated with

  • job-share

  • flexi-time

  • help with childcare

  • working at or from home.

Some of these may be the result of coincidence: for example there would seem to be no compelling reason why their should be an connection between financial performance and the cited family-friendly practices of job-share and paternity leave.

But overall, it seems that there is a connection between having family-friendly practices and higher than average performance. As the authors say, "increases in performance were associated with having one or other family-friendly policy in the case of 5 out of 6 performance indicators".

What this means in terms of causality is hard to say: it could the case that high-performing workplaces are more likely to introduce what they see as progressive working practices.

The family-friendly/work-life balance business case is, however, only part of the business case for introducing flexible working. The bottom-line issues are always more likely to be persuasive for an employer.  If family-friendliness is a by-product of new working practices, a win-win situation is achieved.

Flexibility and family-friendliness

The authors explain their use of the term "family-friendly" rather than the more current "work-life balance". The two terms do not, of course, mean quite the same thing. And in the report, the terms are used more or less interchangeably with "flexible working".  This may lead to some blurred edges in the analysis.

Flexible working may well be family-friendly, whether it's part of a formal family-friendly or work-life balance set of policies or not.  However, as we have noted elsewhere, the benefits of that flexibility may accrue more to the employer than the employee. So the existence in a firm of flexible working practices is not necessarily an indication of family-friendliness.

Some of the working practices referred are more clearly family-friendly: such as provision of child-care and term-time working.  Others, such as home-based working or flexi-time, may be driven by other considerations - such as reducing costs, or extending opening hours and reducing overtime costs.

The researchers also left out some flexible working practices such as temporary contracts, annualised hours and compressed working week, etc. These too may also be styles of work preferred by people to dovetail with non-work life, depending on the degree of choice they have over when work is done.

This is a valuable piece of research, with its academic caution reflecting a rigorous approach to the limitations of the data. It is unfortunate that the official figures it is based on hail from 1998. Much has happened since then, not only with the extension and re-baptising of the concept of "family friendly" as "work-life balance", but also with substantial campaigns to promote the ideas, awareness and practices.

So we look forward to a similar analysis of the next WERS survey, pencilled in for 2004, to see what progress we have made in the meantime.


* There is currently a consultation document out from the DTI, asking for views about what the next WERS should be asking. So if you want your questions to be in there, go to www.dti.gov.uk/er/inform.htm and download the document. The consultation ruins until 16 September 2002.

Further Information

The report The Nature and Pattern of Family-friendly Employment in Britain by Shirley Dex and Colin Smith of the Judge institute of Management, Cambridge University, is published for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by The Policy Press. ISBN
1-86134-433-3

A summary of the report is available on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website, in their Findings section.

www.jrf.org.uk