Publications - Balancing Work and Family Life - Chapter 5

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Chapter 5 - Changing Policy Perspectives

5.1 Policy overview

As the preceding analysis in Chapter Four makes clear, the employment "norm" in both the public and private sectors, both nationally and internationally, remains non-flexible and, by implication, comparatively unfriendly to those employees seeking to achieve an effective work life balance. While available statistical evidence also indicates a growth in "atypical" forms of employment in Ireland as elsewhere, it is important to understand the different policy contexts within which family-friendly/flexible working arrangements have developed in Ireland to date.

Over the past two decades, policy approaches to promoting the types of working arrangement covered by this research have had a number of different emphases over time:

1. 'Traditional' Flexible Working Arrangements
2. Worksharing
3. Equality of Opportunity
4. Employer of choice
5. Rapid technological innovation

Although the last two approaches are particularly relevant to understanding some of the current foci in the debate on family friendly working arrangements, it is valuable to outline also some of the earlier thinking which lay the foundations for the current position.

5.2 'Traditional' flexible working arrangements

As was noted earlier, in the discussion of the 'flexible firm' (see Figure p.24) 'atypical' working arrangements have been, and are likely to continue to be, a common feature of employment in the commercial sector, because of the flexibility they provide to employers in matching consumer demand for their products and services with labour supply. This is particularly true in the services sector, such as retailing, as well as productive industries subject to periodicity of market. Such labour market flexibility is seen as a continuing pre-requisite for sustained economic growth. In their document entitled, Social Policy in a Competitive Economy, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) support the view that "Old fashioned regulation, reflecting old mass production methods, static skills and old work patterns, does not allow us to change fast enough to absorb new processes, new skills, new products, new markets and new labour force profiles" (p.14).

In the public service, the norm has traditionally been full-time, permanent employment (see Humphreys, Fleming and O'Donnell 2000). Throughout the Civil Service, part-time employment has always been of very limited numerical importance, particularly amongst non-industrial grades. In the past and prior to their privatisation, such staff would typically have been female office cleaners and male staff working in posts and telecommunications. In the industrial grades, temporary, seasonal/casual industrial employment on the land or in forestry was predominantly male. In local government, casual and/or part-time employment was and is largely associated with fire fighters and male building workers on road and bridge schemes. In contrast, temporary and/or part-time employment plays a significant role in the primary, secondary and vocational and higher education sectors amongst teaching and administrative staff, as well as in the health services.

5.3 Worksharing

In addition to the 'traditional' areas of atypical employment in the commercial and non-commercial sectors, a deteriorating public expenditure situation led to increasingly severe restrictions being introduced to permanent full-time recruitment in many branches of the public service during the 1980s. Within a national labour context of a significant over-supply of labour, expressing itself through high levels of unemployment, underemployment and net out-migration, increasing policy interest arose, as elsewhere across Europe, in the potential for the reorganisation and/or redistribution of working time to create additional employment opportunities, i.e. worksharing (see Humphreys 1986).

In order to encourage net job-creation, new flexible working arrangements were introduced for the first time into the Irish public service in 1984. "Arising out of decisions of the Government Task Force on Employment, schemes of career breaks and job-sharing have been introduced in the civil service. These provide new job opportunities for young people in the civil service and, at the same time, facilitate staff who wish to avail of the new arrangements" (Serving the Country Better 1985, p.65). The Government's stated intention at that time was to see such initiatives rolled out through the wider public service and this objective it achieved with some success (see Humphreys 1986). "The recently introduced schemes of career breaks and job-sharing ... will also facilitate staff wishing to combine a career and family responsibility, as will flexible hours" (Serving the Country Better 1985, p. 44).

Though the public expenditure situation improved in the 1990s, the value of adopting a worksharing approach was still finding expression in government thinking. For example, in the mid-1990s, as part of a continuing concern to help relieve problems of high unemployment, the potential role of flexible and innovative working arrangements was once more re-assessed in the commercial and non-commercial sectors (see National Economic and Social Forum, 1996). "Much of the present trend towards greater working time flexibility is driven by cost reduction pressures and not to increase the number of persons in employment. An issue for employment policy ... is whether and to what extent working time could be re-organised, without adversely affecting cost competitiveness or the interests of employees, in ways which would create additional work opportunities, especially for the long-term unemployed ... Worksharing may also involve social and cultural benefits associated with enabling individuals to achieve a better balance between working time and life outside employment. These should not be seen as exclusively relevant to women who at present do account for most of the incidence of non-standard working time. The social partners will also have an important role to play in the encouragement and promotion of worksharing" (Department of Enterprise and Employment 1996, p. 71/72).

5.4 Employment equality

During the latter half of the 1980s, as the public expenditure and employment situations worsened, the policy approach to flexible working arrangements shifted once more, particularly in the public service. Rather than being explicitly promoted as a tool for employment creation, the job-sharing and career break schemes in particular became seen as a key element in the "family friendly approach" being adopted by the Civil Service, under its Equal Opportunities Policy and Guidelines (1986). "The job-sharing and career break schemes have a contribution to make in enabling staff in general to combine work and family responsibilities. Flexible working hours can also make an important contribution in this area. Where circumstances permit Departments should consider the introduction or extension of this arrangement. Departments should actively promote these and future arrangements at all grades and encourage staff to consider these options where appropriate" (Sections 32-34).

In this regard, it is important to note that, within the Civil Service industrial relations framework, the General Council Sub-Committee on Equality has expressed concern about the reluctance of managers in some Departments/Offices to facilitate career breaks and jobsharers, as well as its restriction in practice to certain grade groups and the negative perception of jobsharers amongst management and work colleagues alike. Despite these acknowledged shortcomings, flexible working arrangements have continued to be perceived as a cornerstone of "family friendly" employment policies.

Most recently, the need to update the 1986 Equal Opportunities Policy and Guidelines, including its "family-friendly" provisions, in the light of identified shortcomings is leading to a fresh appraisal by the Gender Equality Management Group of the role of flexible working arrangements from an equality of opportunity point of view (see Humphreys, Drew and Murphy, 1999). On a wider policy front, concerted efforts to promote flexible work arrangements for all workers regardless of gender were seen as a key recommendation by the Commission on the Family (1998). In particular, the Commission encourages the wider adoption of family-friendly initiatives by employers e.g. to "meet the needs of workers with caring responsibilities for older family members and to encourage and facilitate men in availing of options to take on caring responsibilities" (1998, p. 14). The Employment Equality Act (1998), that came into force in late 1999, places major new demands on employers in the public and private sectors alike to both widen and deepen their current approaches to equality of opportunity.

Government has acknowledged the extent of the challenge ahead for the nation as a whole. "Nevertheless, despite legislative changes and greatly increased female participation in the labour market, there remains an unbalanced structure in the workplace with some of the following characteristics - segregation of women to a disproportionate extent in relatively low-paid occupations, low level of female participation rates in both training and employment in traditionally male-orientated trades and activities, segregation of women in lower-paid jobs in virtually all sectors, and the absence of male participation in traditionally female areas of work ... There is a clear need to address these issues by legislative and non-legislative means. Measures are needed, such as active encouragement of positive action programmes within enterprises with the aim of informing and educating employees and human resource managers as to the most effective use of the available talent pool ... and the development of employment practices which would allow for greater flexibility in working arrangements thereby facilitating the reconciliation of work and family life" (Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment 1998 p. 45).

This view was also echoed in Partnership 2000, in which there was a commitment by Government to "support the growth of family friendly policies in employment, in line with the policy recommendations contained in the policy document issued by the Employment Equality Agency" (p.30). Equality of opportunity and reconciliation of work and family responsibilities might be among the topics that could be progressed on a partnership-based approach to managing change. Finally, it recommends the establishment of a range of new working practices, including the development of family friendly working hours, such as more flexible working arrangements and enhanced job-sharing and career break facilities (p. 70).

In the subsequent Report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare (1999), it is made absolutely clear that "The current economic climate has increased awareness amongst employers of the benefits of supporting family-friendly policies ... The Expert Working Group acknowledges that supporting and developing childcare is just one of a range of measures which employers can adopt to ensure a stronger balance between work and family life. Other measures include job-sharing, flexible working hours, flexi-place (working from home), term time working and career breaks or sabbaticals, all of which make the workplace more responsive to the needs of workers with children" (p.5).

5.5 Employer of choice

One of the most dramatic changes in the context within which family friendly working policies operate has happened in the past few years. In particular, as the national employment situation has shifted from one of comparative oversupply to one of shortage and intense competition, the policy focus regarding family friendly working arrangements has shifted again. In its report on Social Policy in a Competitive Economy, IBEC has recognised the need for more concerted action to overcome some of the shortcomings in current arrangements. "More flexible working hours, part-time work and career breaks have been introduced in some larger organisations to facilitate employees, mainly women. In many cases the difficulties and limitations associated with these arrangements have been found to be outweighed by benefits such as increased productivity and retaining experienced and skilled employees in the workforce ... A range of factors will influence the potential expansion of such measures to a wider number of companies. These include such issues as the impact on productivity and competitiveness, the importance of flexibility, teamwork and quality of service to customers. IBEC will continue to provide support and advice to companies who are considering adopting flexible working arrangements and will monitor their impact over the coming years" (p. 27).

Business-case arguments for the wider adoption of family friendly working arrangements in the current labour market context are strong. In an era of employee choice, the costs of staff resignation and high staff turnover rates are becoming increasingly important for employers. These often hidden costs include loss of skills, delays in replacement, costs of recruitment and selection and induction/training costs. In a recent Civil Service survey, Goldsmith Fitzgerald (1999) identify 'progressive working arrangements', including flexitime, as an important area for further promotion as an employer of choice. Similar points are made by MRC (Ireland) Ltd. (1999), "The Civil Service must do anything in its power to ensure that, once it attracts good people, it keeps them ... The Civil Service must make sure that as much as possible is done to fulfil the day-to-day needs of employees in terms of providing personally rewarding and challenging work and recognition for individual performance, as well as the excellent fringe benefits and flexible working arrangements" (p.4).

Problems of recruitment and retention are not the exclusive domain of the public service. The National Childcare Strategy (1999) stated that "through family friendly policies, a response to the potential skills shortage can be addressed from the following two perspectives:

1. Attracting new employees into the labour market (specifically women with children) to meet increasing demands.
2. Retaining skilled employees (specially women with children) when childcare obstacles arise" (p.5).

Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness expresses the following views: "The emergence of a tightening labour market and the increased emphasis on human resources as a key competitive element serve to underpin the importance of developing innovative ways of maximising the available labour supply. Similarly, the importance of facilitating equality of opportunity for men and women in the workplace also underscores the desirability of developing policies that can assist parents in reconciling work and family life. Family-friendly policies can serve a dual purpose of contributing to the needs of the business as well as meeting the needs of employees with family responsibilities" (Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness 2000, p. 42).

As already indicated in Chapter One, the PPF (2000) gives priority to the encouragement of family friendly working arrangements. In particular, in Annex IV to Framework 1, IBEC, public sector employers and ICTU agree to undertake a number of specific actions, including:

  • identifying relevant options for enterprise level family friendly policies and practices;
  • developing practical guidelines at national level to assist in the implementation of family friendly policies and practices at enterprise level;
  • identifying best practice and dissemination relevant information to employers and trade unions and;
  • training for management, union, employer and workplace representatives on relevant options and best practice methods of implementation.

To support this important initiative, a National Framework Committee has been established, under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with budgetary support from the Human Resources Development Programme. It must also be noted that the National Development Plan (2000-2006) includes specific provision of £23.2 million to finance measures to promote equality, including the greater sharing of family responsibilities.

5.6 Rapid technological innovation

In addition to pressing labour supply imperatives, there are also very significant implications for the demand for labour following the rapid process of technological innovation, particularly in the area of information and communication technologies (ICTs). "The rapidity of technological and organisational change in business, changes in the nature of work itself and the increasingly competitive international business environment, all require the adoption of a continuous and life-long approach to skills acquisition and training and the promotion of greater flexibility and adaptability within the workforce" (Department of Enterprise and Employment 1997, p. 57).

There is considerable potential offered by the effective innovation of advanced IT systems for the further development of family friendly working arrangements. "The type of work we do will change in the Information Society. So also will the location of work for many people ... Teleworking (working from home or other non-office locations using information and communications technologies) will become a feature of most people's work patterns, even if only a minority are teleworking at any one point of time" (Information Society Ireland (ISI) 1996, p. 9). "A world of new working patterns will mean that people will experience the benefits and challenges of flexible working, self-employment and teleworking, experiencing a better quality of life but a less predictable career path" (ISI 1996, p. 16). "With effective policies, equality of opportunity between women and men can be enhanced by the potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve the balance between family and working life" (ISI 1996, p. 10).

The importance of achieving substantive progress on these issues should not be understated. "The Information Society represents a phenomenal challenge and opportunity for Ireland. We are at the early stages of a new industrial revolution - one that will have more dramatic implications than any other single industrial development in the history of the State. New structures and business models are evolving but unlike in previous times, these developments are taking place at breakneck speed ... Rapid response is needed to ensure that the benefits of the Information Society can be availed of by Irish citizens and Irish businesses, thus contributing to the on-going improvement of Ireland's society and economy. ... Failure to take action could mean that much of the strong economic performance of recent years could be lost ... Failure to act would also mean missing out on the opportunities to improve the social inclusion process through the use of information and communication technologies" (ISI 1999, p. 3).

5.7 Key messages

Drawing upon the foregoing policy analysis, a number of key issues can be identified:

  • Over the past two decades, policy approaches to promoting family friendly/flexible working arrangements have had a number of different emphases over time, including 'traditional' labour market flexibility, worksharing, employment equality, 'employer of choice' and rapid technological innovation.
  • Each of these approaches has tended to build upon, rather than replace its predecessor, leading to incremental growth, rather than a more fundamental policy.
  • Most recently, the emergence of a tightening labour market and the increased emphasis on human resources as a key competitive element now underpins the need to develop innovative ways of maximising the available labour supply.
  • In addition, there is considerable potential offered by the effective innovation of advanced IT systems for the further development of family friendly working arrangements.
  • To help respond to these challenges, the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness (2000) brings together IBEC, public sector employers and ICTU under a new national framework to take forward family friendly/flexible working arrangements as a matter of priority.


Chapter One: Background and Introduction
Chapter Two: What are Family Friendly Working Arrangements?
Chapter Three: Why Work Flexibly?
Chapter Four: How Much Working is Flexible
Chapter Five: Changing Policy Perspectives
Chapter Six: Legal Perspectives
Chapter Seven: Workplace Perspectives
Chapter Eight: Key Issues and Challenges
Annex One Checklist for developing family friendly/flexible working arrangements in the workplace

Last modified:07/11/2008

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