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Varied support for flexible IT staff

Antony Savvas
The government's flexible working legislation for parents with young children is now a year old, but are the opportunities for flexible working in IT growing?

According to the Department of Trade & Industry, employers grant eight out of 10 flexible working requests from staff with young children. Since the legislation was brought in to help the UK catch up with parental flexible working benefits in countries such as Holland and Scandinavia, almost 25% of parents with children under the age of six have requested flexible working.

Flexible working is a broad term which can include job sharing, home working, flexitime, staggered or compressed hours and other arrangements.

The DTI has said that since April 2003, when the legislation came into force, the proportion of flexible working requests being declined by companies has nearly halved - from 20% before the law to 11% after. Employers are only allowed to turn down an employee request for "legitimate business reasons".

However, the Maternity Alliance lobbying group has said that 25% of requests for flexible working are turned down and that 90% of requests were refused for unjustified business reasons.

In addition, the Maternity Alliance said that many of those allowed to work flexibly have been forced to take pay cuts and/or have lost status in their companies.

But has the IT industry embraced flexible working or just paid lip service to it?

David Roberts, chief executive of the Corporate IT Forum, feels the IT industry has been ahead of the legislation. Roberts said, "Large companies' employment processes are ahead of any legislation. The last thing they want is to see their most valuable assets - their people - walk out just because they have children.

"The IT industry has almost invented flexible working and has been at the forefront of teleworking and supporting the development of a mobile workforce."

Peter Skyte, national secretary of the IT Professionals' Association, part of union Amicus, was more sceptical. "In some cases good employers have been willing to accommodate flexible working and there is certainly room for two-way flexibility. But some employers still see flexibility as a one-way concept in their favour," he said.

"As for IT being well ahead of everyone else, I am not sure whether that is clearly the case - the financial services industry has more part-time working."

Although figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that more than 40% of employees are still unaware of the flexible working rules, trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt said the legislation had been a success. Hewitt said, "With more women in work than ever before, employers cannot afford to ignore the benefits of flexible working, including recruitment, retention and staff morale. Employers have sent out a signal of support for flexible working and this should give parents the confidence to raise the issue with their bosses, informally or through the new rules."

A survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) and legal firm Lovells found most employers had reacted positively to the new rules. Almost 70% of companies said the opportunity to work flexibly had a positive effect on employee attitudes and morale, and 70% said they were willing to consider flexible working requests from all staff - not just those with children under six.

The CIPD now supports extending the right to ask for flexible working to all staff, providing employers can still refuse because of "legitimate business reasons", just like under the existing legislation.

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