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Employer flexibility and employee work/life balance

Discuss the extent to which employers need for flexibility and employees need for work-life balance can reconcile.

Introduction

In the modern highly volatile business environment, organizations go through a tough time keeping up with the market forces due to the severity of the competition they face. This makes the customer search for the best quality and value for their money. Therefore organizations formulate strategies and these strategies are then transformed into quantitative objectives and are broken down to each employee in the organization in order that they can carry out their part in it. This creates pressure in the minds of the managers and their employees. The managers persuade the employees and get the tasks done one way or the other. This increasingly demanding workplace complexity is what causes work-life balance issues. In other words, employees find it rather difficult to balance the work with their own personal lives.

Flexibility is often thought to be the solution to the work-life balance problem. In the context of human resource management, flexibility refers to the ability of an organization to adapt according to its various human resource needs. However in reality flexibility is not the perfect solution as flexibility itself could cause work-life balance problems. This paper will critically analyse the dilemma between flexibility and work-life balance considering the current situation. It will take into consideration the importance of achieving both concepts, whilst stressing on the various difficulties of implementing both. Further it will evaluate the pros and cons of flexible working options from both the employer and the employee perspectives and suggest methods that can be implemented in the future to help achieve flexibility and work-life balance.

Current Situation in the Labour Markets

One of the biggest changes in the labour market was the structural change that occurred as the female participation ratio gradually increased over the years (Doherty 2004, in Daniels and French 2006). The breadwinner role which traditionally used to lie with the men is no longer the case. Nowadays the workforce is made up almost equally with both men and women. However women still have to attend to their household duties such as attending to their children and the running of their homes. This makes it difficult for women to balance their work and own life especially with the increasing corporate demands. Those with caring responsibilities face similar problems, whether it may be caring for elders, disabled persons or even single parents.

With globalization taking a huge step forward, most organizations work more than the traditional 9 to 5 in order to accommodate the time differences. Also with the rise of consumer culture, supermarkets and gas stations are open round the clock, 365 days of the year. This not only increases the workload for the existing employees, but with the economic downturn causing redundancies, it only increases the workload per person. Also, the advancement in technology and developments such as blackberry’s, employees are constantly working, even when they are at home. Many employees have no option but to work over their contracted number of hours in order to ensure that their deadlines are met.

This battle between employers and employees is an ever present problem in both developing and developed countries. The 24/7 work-life balance survey is an annual national internet based survey conducted by the authors in association with the Work-life Balance Centre. The results in 2005 showed that the main causes for long work hours, ill health, stress and high workloads, were the lack of availability of employer working policies and lack of awareness of working time regulations (Daniels and French 2006). In 2009, four years later, still “76% of the population interviewed said they experience some degree of stress at work. Workers in the public sector (20%) were most likely to report feeling always or almost always stressed compared to 18.4% in the private sector” (Hurst, Skinner and Worrall 2009: 4). This proves that even with all the effort being made to promote work-life balance, employees still give into their workplace demands.

Is Flexibility the ‘Solution’ to work-life balance problems?

In the contemporary business organization, there are four main sources of flexibility. Functional flexibility refers to employees being multi skilled and able to undertake a range of tasks, thereby making the organization immune to the absence of any key person in the workforce because his duties can be delegated to someone else. Numerical flexibility is more a short term approach that enables management to increase or decrease the workforce strength depending on the requirement. Temporal flexibility requires changing patterns of hours that are worked and wage flexibility refers to using a non-standardized pay structure, such as performance related pay. (Blyton and Morris 1992) These long and short term approaches to flexibility are a result of the different viewpoints of HRM. An organization practicing soft HRM would make use of functional and wage flexibility where as an organization practicing hard HRM would use more numeric and temporal methods of flexibility.

Indeed flexible working does help employers and employees to mitigate work-life balance problems. For example a working mother can decide to work flexible hours when her children are at school or day-care. Flexible working hours also make it convenient for employees to balance work and family activities together. For example, when they are in control of which hours they work, they can arrange transport with their spouses and even combine work and domestic activities together such as grocery shopping on the way home. Similarly students can seek part time employment during their vacation periods or even on their days off.

A firm practicing functional flexibility would result in having two or more employees who are able to do the same job. Therefore in an instant where one is not present, operations can still carry on smoothly. However this would create internal competition between employees competing for the same position. From the firms perspective this would be beneficial because employees would be more efficient and hardworking. The employees however would have increased job insecurity, would be stressed and would feel compelled to work harder, thus causing work-life balance issues (Edwards and Wajcman 2005).

Wages are a very sensitive topic for both the employers and the employees. Wage flexibility would result in measures such as performance-related-pay (PRP) being implemented which means that employees will be closely monitored by the employers in terms of output, efficiency and being late for work. This would be done by means of performance appraisals. This again would cause the employees to feel insecure and as Herzberg suggested, lack of job security and increased supervision would lead to job dissatisfaction (Tosi, Mero and Rizzo 2000).

It has also been proven over the years that workers who are employed on a part time basis are less likely to receive a formal training (Arulampalam and Booth 1998). This is because the employers fear that the employee will leave soon after the training is concluded. This works as a disincentive for employees to work part time and other flexible methods of work. Therefore employees are compelled to work full-time and are faced with problems balancing work and their own lives.

The Business Case

Flexibility was introduced initially for the employers own benefit even though later on it was clear that it helped work-life balance as well. One of the biggest advantages for the employers is that it enables 24 hour serviceability. Firms that offer 24 hour or even extended operational hours would not be able to function with core staff. Part time workers and flexible hours allow the firm to operate smoothly and more efficiently. It also ensures that the employees are only on duty when work is available for them and therefore helps the firm to minimize its costs by avoiding idle time. Having part time workers would also make available a large pool of candidates if in need for recruitment (Hogg and Harker 1992).

It has been proven that “part time workers cause less absenteeism, are happier, motivated and productive on the job” (Woodland, Simmonds, Thornby, Fitzgerald and Mcgee (2003) cited in Daniels and French 2006:10). This is because they are more relaxed and motivated. Part time workers are generally paid a lower wage than their counterpart full time employees and do not receive as many benefits. Therefore this is a big advantage from the firm’s point of view because they are getting a higher level of efficiency out of their employees by paying them less than full time employees.

On the downside, firms may have to make big changes in order to accommodate the flexible working time arrangements such as new time keeping systems. Also expenditure on security systems and overheads would also increase. Similarly part time working requires maintaining a huge data base and rota’s which are quite complicated. Functional flexibility may involve huge costs on training employees, and some employees may leave after the training period. Therefore depending on the risk appetite of the firm, it may seem an unproductive investment to make.

What can be done further to improve work-life balance?

Employers can implement various other flexible work schemes that would improve employee work-life balance. Flexi-place and Tele-working are two such measures that would benefit both the employer and the employee. From the employer’s perspective, they would save office space, and reduce overheads, and from the employees perspective it would save the time commuting to work and would also make childcare arrangements easier. However employers would be reluctant to implement such a system because there is a lack of control over the working time and it makes supervision impossible. Therefore a high degree of trust and autonomy must be present within the organization in order for flexi-place and tele-working to be implemented (Hogg and Harker 1992: 30).

Another method that employers can enable work-life balance through flexibility is by providing childcare facilities at work. This is suitable especially for large corporate organizations where female employees are a big part of their workforce. Providing childcare facilities would result in female and male employees being able to be at work without worrying about their children. From the employers point of view this would be beneficial to them because the employees would be more focussed at work since they know their children are in good hands. This however could be quite costly especially at the initial stages where a safe area has to be built and specialised staff needs to be recruited.

Many other flexible working options could be made available such as flexible start and finish times and term time only working which would help employees increase work-life balance. Similarly the management can take the initiative to plan and discuss workloads, hire temporary assistants and provide additional resources (Daniels and French 2006). All of these options would involve costs to the firm; however the firm should equally take into consideration the benefits of a well motivated worker.

Conclusion

Considering all the above factors it is evident that work places have become more complex and demanding with the increase in competition. This together with the increase in the female participation ratio at work is what caused problems of work-life balance to arise. Firms then introduced flexibility measures at work for their own benefit only to realise that they enable employee’s to minimise work-life balance issues as well. This is achieved by giving the employees a choice to decide which times they want to be at work. However just as a coin has two sides, flexibility has two sides to it. It not only helps to ease work-life balance issues, but also causes them. Even though firms have many potential benefits of implementing flexible work, the employers are rather reluctant to implement better measures due to the initial costs involved. Therefore it can be concluded that flexibility is far from the perfect solution to work-life balance problems and that both flexibility and work-life balance cannot be perfectly reconciled unless both employers and employees are fully committed to it. Further, the government may have to influence the employers by means of regulations so that firms will consider the benefits of flexibility and not only the costs.

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