Levelling out the work-life balance

Why it pays employers to let parents work flexible hours. Nathalie Towner reports

Why it pays employers to let parents work flexible hours. Nathalie Towner reports

Susan Walker works as developer in a large IT company based in Cambridgeshire. She is also the mother of a 14-month old girl. After her maternity leave ended she wanted to return to work on a part-time basis but her employer made it clear that if she wanted a job she would have to work the same hours as everyone else.

"It might have been better if I'd asked to go part-time when I first applied for the job," says Walker, "but you're not expected to change the terms and conditions of your contract later on."

But the situation has just taken a turn for the better for Walker and others in her situation. Thanks to recently approved legislation she is now in a far stronger negotiating position if she requests flexible working hours.

From April 2003 employers will be legally obliged to consider requests from parents with children under the age of six who want to work part-time, flexi-time or from home.

"Life changes enormously when you have children, it's a massive upheaval and we don't just need flexibility when we have babies but over a number of years," says Walker.

The employer can reject the request, but must provide sound business reasons for doing so. About 3.8 million parents, 2.1 million of them men, are eligible to benefit.

"Flexible hours would be a big factor if I were looking for alternative employment," says extranet manager, Peter Richardson. He and his partner have just had their first child and when she returns to teaching he wants to be available to help look after the baby.

"It's something I'd be interested in taking up if I felt it was more available. Notionally I have flexible hours but I'm not made to feel as if I can make full use of them."

IT companies which recognise that their staff have personal needs and adapt accordingly will ultimately have a far more satisfied workforce. These employers are far less likely to fall victim to the skills shortage as they will hold onto staff who would otherwise have moved on.

"When an employee enters into a contract it is hard to envisage how circumstances might change," says Yvonne Bennion, policy specialist for the Industrial Society. "Contracts must now be able to incorporate all eventualities."

Bennion believes the legislation will not create resentment in the workplace as people understand that parents need two incomes to maintain a decent standard of living and it can be difficult to juggle work and bringing up children.

Fortunately not all IT companies have been as short-sighted as Walker's employer. "We always encourage maternity leavers to come back," says Maria Bristol, HR manager of Strategix, an e-business and supply chain management company.
"Strategix has always had a flexible policy and we encourage staff to talk through what they want with their line managers."

Bristol believes that the company has benefited by retaining skills, saving on development costs and maintaining continuity with successful client relationships.

"I think this legislation is the start of something bigger," says Bristol, "work lives are changing and this will encourage people to think more about how they organise their lives."

Melanie Harrison, QA consultant for Strategix, took a year out before returning to a part-time position. She negotiated her new working hours while on maternity leave. "It means I can keep my career going and keep my skills up-to-date," she says. "Otherwise I would have looked at taking five years out."

Harrison plans to go back to work full-time eventually but meanwhile her hours will vary depending on the age of her daughter.

It is important for companies to recognise that people's lives are made up of several phases and it is in both the employee's and employer's interest to try and accommodate these.

Sue Fundry joined IBM when she was 25 and children were definitely not on her agenda. She now has two children, aged seven and 10, and is a Websphere MQ distributed development manager.

Her choice not to return to full-time work for several years has not affected her career progression. "When I first came back I ended up in project management as I had previously shown an interest in this area," she says. "I ended up working part-time for seven years and had lots of different roles in this time."

The Government taskforce anticipates that 80% of requests for flexible working will be resolved between employer and employee with only 1% going to tribunal. The legislation has disappointed some pressure groups - it is limited in that it only applies to parents with children under six and it is only the right to ask - but it is definitely a step in the right direction.

Sarah Walker and Peter Richardson are not their real names

Sex discrimination challenges opened door to flexible working
Two recent employment tribunals emphasise how much the Government is pushing the right of parents to be considered for flexible working.

1. Mechanic Neil Walkingshaw was refused shorter working hours that would have helped him take care of his son Sean. He argued that his employer had shown greater flexibility to female staff. When his wife's maternity leave ended and she returned to work he was forced to leave the garage. The Equal Opportunities Commission took up his case and the tribunal found he had been discriminated against because of his sex

2. Michelle Chew, a former police constable also won a sex discrimination battle. Chew took Avon and Somerset police force to court after it refused her request not to work night shifts so that she could take care of her two young children.

The new rules
Parents who have children aged under six, or a disabled child under 18, and who have worked for the employer for six months or more qualify

2. They must make a request for flexible working hours in writing

3. They must explain how they would like to change their working pattern and how it can be achieved

4. The employer must give the request serious consideration and hold a meeting with the employee within four weeks

5. The employer must put a decision in writing within a further two weeks

6. If the request is rejected it must be backed up with clear business reasons

7. If the employee and employer disagree and internal procedures fail to resolve the issue the employee can take the case to an employment tribunal.

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