Thursday, 15 May 2008

Flexible working - more than your job's worth!

In a previous post, I noted a challenge from the Harvard Business Review:

"If a company actually embraced—rather than merely paid lip service to—the idea that its people are its most important asset, it would treat employees in much the way Google does."

British company's reaction to today's announcement that the government will extend the right to request flexible working to more parents and require agency workers to be treated more fairly shows how far we've still got to go...

For example, the Federation of Small Businesses has warned that firms will struggle to absorb the cost of the reforms:
"The announcements on temporary agency workers and flexible working put small businesses in an impossible position."

There are a number of operational pros and cons that Sainsbury’s HRD Imelda Walsh must have considered in recommending an extension in the right to request flexible working from parents of children aged up to 6 to those with children aged up to 16 (an increase of 4.5 millon workers).

And if I was asked to participate in this debate, I would say that the pros outweigh the cons. As the CIPD explain:

"Our research shows that part-time and flexible workers are happier, more engaged with their work, and therefore likely to perform better and be more productive. And in a tight labour market, flexible working is part of the package that can help recruit and retain the talent organisations need to deliver their objectives. It is therefore unsurprising that a great many employers, large and small, go well beyond the legislative minimums and allow employees to work flexibly regardless of their family status."

But to me the choice is more strategic and more straight forward too. If companies see their people as human resources then of course they're going to want to maximise the utility of this resource. If they see people as providers of valuable human capital, who invest this capital for as long as they're looked after and provided with an appropriate return, the course of action is just as clear, but completely different.

So while the extension is a sensible compromise, I'd argue it doesn't go far enough. After all, we're only talking about the right to ask. And giving some people this right and others not, is bound to present problems. Again, quoting the CIPD:
"We remain concerned that businesses who stick to the legislative minimum on the right to request may begin to see the emergence of a divide in the workplace between the flexible working haves and have-nots. The danger with ever larger groups of people entitled to request flexible working, and a smaller number not entitled to do so, is that a sense of unfairness will damage the employment relations climate and business performance."

But many organisations that want to invest in their human capital need to do more than simply apply the right to ask past those who are legally entitled to it. As Personnel Today has noted, many employees fear that their careers will suffer if they take up their right. And they're probably correct. Reporting on research of small business owners / managers, Management Today also explain that:

"The issue, of course, is that if the people running companies don’t really understand the basic concept."

Perhaps if business managers learn a bit more HR-speak it might help.

And it sounds as if some major cultural change is required too.