Government encouragement to offer more flexibility to the workforce to help work/life balance rests on the idea that it makes business sense to do so.
With funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we were able to examine a Department of Trade & Industry national survey of British workplaces and their staff - the Workplace Employee Relations Survey - to test that assumption.
Our analysis is the first of its kind in Britain. There have been a number of case studies of individual workplaces that found some benefits to performance, but there is the possibility that these workplaces were ones already with conditions favourable to the introduction of flexibility. Examining a survey of all sizes, sectors and shapes of workplace, and comparing those that had flexible working arrangements with those that did not allowed us to see if
there were benefits from flexibility.
We examined a range of performance indicators, some of which, for example financial performance and sales, do not apply in the public sector. Staff turnover was examined across all sectors.
Workplaces that offered job share, flexitime, working from home or help with the costs of childcare all had 3% lower staff turnover in the past year compared with workplaces without these provisions.
Although apparently a relatively small impact, this is a big effect from a single working arrangement. When combined with other characteristics associated with being a good employer, even more sizeable reductions in turnover could be achieved. We also found benefits to financial performance and sales associated with flexibility in private sector workplaces.
Our examination of staff was based around what determined their loyalty or commitment - that is, employees sharing the organisation's values, feeling loyal and being proud to tell people who
they worked for. Here
we found significant differences between public and private sector staff.
After we took into account a wide range of other influences, we found private sector staff tended to reveal greater commitment and loyalty where their employers offered flexible working arrangements, compared with staff who did not enjoy such provisions.
Despite having employers who were more likely to offer flexible working arrangements, and a wider range of such provisions, workers in the public sector did not show greater loyalty where they were offered flexible arrangements.
This came as something of a puzzle. We had started off expecting this to be the other way round, given the longer history and more extensive range of flexible arrangements in the public sector. Earlier studies had found that staff who gained access to flexibility said they appreciated it, especially where they had increased autonomy and control in the workplace.
Our data did not allow us to investigate this difference. However, other research that is part of the same Joseph Rowntree Foundation work and family life programme has found some suggestions. It may be that longer exposure to flexible working in the public sector has made staff take it for granted.
If flexible working policies are simply paper and window-dressing and the culture does not reward or encourage flexibility, this can lead to staff becoming cynical about arrangements.
Staff shortages with no possibilities for cover may leave some groups of employees with even higher workloads where others are offered flexibility, or feelings that they cannot let down their colleagues by taking up flexible options.
These are factors that reduce the potential benefits of flexibility and need to be managed more equitably if improved performance and staff appreciation are to be achieved.
Shirley Dex and Colin Smith
Authors of The Nature and Pattern of Family Friendly Employment Policies in Britain