Special report – Work-life balance: Part time workers miss out

It’s a simple fact that part-time workers are starved of good promotional opportunities, and the trend’s not changing, says Jenny Keefe

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Case study: Monster Worldwide

The light at the end of the tunnel is a train. Just two years after the right to request was hailed as a victory for parents, many part-timers have found their workloads rocket and their careers take a nosedive.

For while many organisations appear to be paying lip service to the principles of work-life balance, the reality often falls short of these lofty goals.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s 2005 survey Flexible working: impact and implementation showed that 84% of organisations believe flexible working has had a positive impact on retention and over half believe it helps recruitment. But there is trouble in paradise. The report highlighted a catalogue of teething problems including managers not buying in to new policies and struggling to manage flexible teams.

Angela Mortimer, director of the recruitment consultancy of the same name, says: "I’ve seen flexible [practices] work exceptionally well, I’ve also seen it work really poorly. Every time that it’s done, it’s new for everyone involved and therefore it needs to be explored and understood, from all practical points of view. It has to be properly thought out and instigated, but as a concept it does have to be fully bought into by everyone for it to work.

"When it does work then it’s much like a school run: as long as everyone is participating and keeping up their part of the deal, it can be a terrific plus for everyone."

Yet for many workers, the scheme stalls before the car has even pulled out of the drive: four-out-of-ten requests are turned down in the first place. The statutory right to request flexible working came into force in 6 April 2003 and applies to parents with children under six (or 18 if the child is disabled). But Working Families’ Right to request flexible working: review of impact found that in the first year of legislation 40% of all requests were turned down. The vast majority of employers gave a reason, but around half did not fit the allowable grounds for refusal.

Rosalind Bragg, head of policy, information and campaigns at pregnant women’s charity the Maternity Alliance, says: "Getting agreement from employers can be difficult and we do encounter a lot of instances where employers refuse very reasonable requests. What happens then is that one of the parents – and it is usually the woman – is forced to resign their position."

And after a request is granted, many employees feel like they have taken a sip from the poisoned chalice. The Equal Opportunities Review/ICM Survey found that female part-timers earn 40% less an hour than male full-time employees. The same survey showed that one-third of men thought that part-time workers should not have the same promotional opportunities.

"We regularly hear from women who have moved to part-time work and found themselves in what is essentially a different job to the one they left for maternity leave. They report less challenging work, less client contact and fewer opportunities for bonuses.

"We also hear about women missing out on career development opportunities and training. These all impact upon scope for promotion in an organisation. Many employers just don’t offer management positions on a part-time basis which further limits women’s work opportunities," explains Bragg.

And it is not just female part-timers who are held back. Speaking before the Trade and Industry Committee in January, Alexandra Jones, a senior researcher at think-tank the Work Foundation, gave the example of an investment bank she had interviewed. "They had wonderful paternity policies, absolutely fantastic, complied with the letter of the law and they said they were going to use them to weed out the losers.

"The government certainly sets a minimum standard, but employer attitudes, employer culture and employers’ ways of working are vital to achieve some of the flexibilities."

Workload is another sticking point. Employees who reduce their hours may find themselves struggling to squeeze five days’ work into a three-day week. Thus you need to identify how much can be done in the time available and, if necessary, allocate tasks to colleagues or organise a job share.

John Harrison is HR manager for the Borough of Telford & Wrekin, which has a range of flexible working policies and won the NSPCC award for Family Friendly Employer of the Year. He says there are ways of keeping workloads in check. "Every member of staff has a regular opportunity to sit down with their manager to see how much work they are doing and see if they’re overloaded. The manager will then work with them to cut down that overload in a variety of ways. That element is something we measure on employee surveys. So much of it’s a cultural thing within the organisation, it’s down to managers."

It’s often little things that matter. "Car parking, for instance, is the bane of everybody’s life. For people that are on the school run, the car park was full when they got here so they had to go and park in the shopping centre car park, which cost a fortune. So we allocate parts of the car park now, so at that crucial time when the school run finishes some spaces are available for people who drop the kids off on their way in," he adds.

Part-time workers can also feel isolated from the team, so employers need to keep them in the loop. Vicky Greig, HR consultant at parents’ charity the National Family and Parenting Institute, says: "You need practical systems such as written briefings for meetings that might otherwise be done orally. Without such practical systems, people feel like ships passing in the night without enough time to communicate."

She adds that flexible working can cause resentment and ill-feeling for those without dependents. "One sensitive area for some organisations is when staff without dependents do not get the same benefits as those who do. Those employees who are working flexibly need to be aware of the effect that their work patterns have on others. For example, if they finish at 3pm each day to collect the children and a colleague rarely goes home early. There does need to be plenty of give and take, particularly so that full-time staff are not taken for granted."

But there is a faint glimmer of hope. NSPCC employment policy adviser Charlie Monkom explains that 10 years ago the issue was not making flexible working run smoothly, but getting organisations to see it as an option. "The old battle was trying to get it mentioned at all; so in some ways [the current situation is] healthy," he says.

Case study: Monster Worldwide

Recruitment advertising firm Monster Worldwide has successfully sorted out the gremlins in its flex plan.

Kim Nguyen, HR manager, explains: "We have just promoted one lady while she was working part-time. There was a job of team leader that came up, but it needed someone to be there five days a week. So we got someone else in the team to do the role on the other day. So there are the more tricky practical issues. One of the tricks here is making sure that the handover [occurs] with the other person."

The company, which runs the job search website Monster.com, has 40 employees working part-time and offers a range of flexible working options. Staff can reduce their hours, job share and work from home.

Nguyen says the firm tries to accommodate all requests. "If an employee comes to us with a request for part-time working they don’t need to come to us with a formal business case. They just engage with their manager about the reason for their request and they discuss whether it’s a viable option and then if they agree to it then off they go. It’s not a difficult process and we don’t shy away from it."

She adds in a sales environment part-time workers can rise up the ranks, because if they are good at their job the figures speak for themselves. "It’s very much about the contribution you make rather than the hours you work. It’s very much results driven.

"We find that employees who work three days a week are more focused than people who work five days a week. I think they welcome it as a change from the home environment and enjoy the challenge: as a business we get a lot more value from them."

Parental laws are developing fast, so employers need to keep a watching brief, says Victoria Furness

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Case study: MTM Products

The phrase work-life balance was largely unknown ten years ago before Labour came to power and implemented a raft of family-friendly policies. Since then, it has become popular parlance on the back of new legislation, as well as a growing realisation that a happy, balanced workforce can reap rewards in terms of recruiting and retaining staff.

Until a few years ago, label manufacturer MTM Products (see box right) thought that its culture of offering flexible working to all staff was not uncommon. Ian Greenaway, managing director, says: "Then I saw someone do a talk on work-life balance. I said: ‘We do that,’ but we did not know that it had a name. We became a case study for work-life balance and I realised we were not that normal."

Since then, work-life balance has grown in prominence. The Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI’s) 2004 Workplace employment relations survey, for example, revealed a greater understanding from managers of employees’ responsibilities outside work, with 65% believing it was up to the individual to balance their work and family responsibilities, compared with 84% in 1998.

Recent legislation has undoubtedly had a significant impact on these figures. Management consultancy, Barony Consulting, was involved in researching work-life balance for the government five years ago. Doug Forbes, director at Barony Consulting, explains: "After the Working Time Directive came in, the DTI felt that the Directive was a failure and it had to do something in relation to working hours. At that time, there was also some debate from the US on work-life balance so the DTI set up a framework to explore what work-life balance was and how it could fit within a potential Employment Act."

At the same time, there was pressure from some women for more user-friendly childcare policies. Both of these factors fed into the 2002 Employment Act, which provides the basis for many work-life balance policies in organisations today.

The Act extended maternity leave for mothers that had worked 26 weeks’ service. Rebecca Ireland, partner at law firm Clarks, explains: "[Before] there was some confusion between ordinary and additional maternity leave. The changes simplified it to run one after the other, so some women can take up to a year off work." Maternity pay also increased.

Fathers gained from the Act with the acknowledgement of two weeks paid statutory paternity leave. However, some caveats apply: the leave must be taken within 56 days of the actual date of birth or adoption of the child, and pay is at the current statutory amount of £106 a week.

Another new feature was the right for both mothers and fathers to request flexible working. This can be anything from working part-time to job sharing, term-time-only working, nine-day fortnights and so on. "The only thing in place before applied to women returning from maternity leave. If an employer refused to consider a mother’s appeal to work part-time, the employer could be charged indirectly with sex discrimination," explains Ireland.

Now if an employer refuses the requirement, the company has to show a business reason for doing so. If the case goes in front of a tribunal, the employer may be asked to reconsider their decision or award compensation of up to eight weeks’ pay.

However, there are some caveats; it does not apply to employees with children over six-years-old or carers for elderly or sick relatives. And while employees have the right to take parental leave to deal with family emergencies, this is unpaid. The charity Working Families does not think current legislation demands enough of employers. Maggy Meade-King, head of communications at Working Families, says: "This legislation has no teeth because all an employer need do is follow the timing and procedures in place."

She also believes it puts too much of a burden on the employee. "An individual has to make his or her own [flexible] working case, even if it is just for an extra half an hour off in the morning."

Penny de Valk, managing director of HR provider Ceridian Centrefile, however, disagrees: "The request form is so simple. It asks about the impact of flexible working and how it will affect your colleagues. One of the best so-called business cases I have seen was from my receptionist who wanted more flexibility in her work."

Most industry experts concede, however, that the current legislation is a good start in tackling work-life balance. Now the government plans to go one step further.

Alongside the Pre-Budget report last year, the government presented its ten-year strategy for childcare. This included several changes to existing work-life balance legislation: an extension of maternity pay and adoption pay from six months to nine months by April 2007; a new right for mothers to transfer a proportion of their maternity leave and pay to fathers in the first year. The proposals also include an extension to the right to request flexible working hours to carers of parents of older children and adults.

Barony Consulting’s Forbes thinks the latter proposal in particular is necessary. "More people are affected by caring for the elderly than childcare, and it reflects the distribution in the population to over-50s as people live longer," he says.

The practicalities of administering many of these new changes, however, have yet to be addressed, although further clarification is expected once the government begins to draft the legislation. Peter Wilford, managing director of HR consultancy D3 Group, says: "The government needs to sort out how employers will cover time off work and there are also issues about how you define a needy or elderly relative."

The proposed legislation also does nothing to tackle the amount of pay received during leave. In fact, in the area of parental leave, the government has specifically said that it will only look at this topic for parents of disabled children.

Offering paid leave to staff where there is no mandatory requirement to do so is one of the ways some organisations have chosen to motivate and reward staff. Pharmaceutical company, Eli Lilly, for example, offers employers that have worked more than 26 weeks’ service, 12 weeks maternity leave at full pay, eight weeks at half pay and six weeks at £106 per week. Fathers receive ten days of fully paid paternity leave.

The company does not restrict the right to request flexible working either. Gay Buchanan, HR project leader responsible for work-life balance, says: "At the time of the legislation, we took an approval within the company to offer all employees the right to request flexible working. We refuse very few requests, other than in situations where the business cannot support it."

Childcare is another area where employers can help address work-life balance through benefits packages, whether by offering childcare vouchers, information on local nurseries or even reserving places for employees’ children. In addition, some employers offer staff access to employee assistance programmes. These might address issues such as finding a plumber, dealing with divorce or returning to work after having a baby.

Clearly work-life balance policies such as these are not mandatory, but in industries where the labour market is competitive or skills are scarce, offering employees benefits that extend beyond basic statutory requirements can help a company stand out from the crowd.

Case study: MTM Products

Small businesses are often thought to struggle with work-life issues, yet label manufacturer MTM Products, which employs 39 staff, defies this viewpoint.

Ian Greenaway, MTM’s managing director, says: "We do not ban any working practices because you restrict what is possible."

As a result, MTM offers 26 different working patterns to suit its employees’ needs, whether based on the bus timetable, childcare or trips to the gym. "If someone wants to change their working hours, they are asked to talk to their team mates and come up with a solution. Then they come to see me or their line manager and tell us how it might work," he explains.

The organisation’s performance has certainly not suffered since it began implementing this policy: output has increased three-fold with only a 20% increase in the workforce. Employees are also motivated, and retaining or hiring staff is never a problem. "It is exceptional when we lose one person a year. And absenteeism is two to three days per head a year. If you take a flexible approach, people appreciate it and go the extra mile," says Greenaway.

Useful contacts

  • Employers for Work-Life Balance www.employersforwork-lifebalance.org.uk/
  • Department of Trade and Industry legislation www.dti.gov.uk/er/individual/legislation.htm#time
  • The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to Work For http://business.timesonline.co.uk/section/0,,12190,00.html
  • Work and Parents Competitiveness and Choice Green Paper: www.dti.gov.uk/er/g_paper/ Working Families www.workingfamilies.org.uk/asp/home_zone/m_welcome.asp