Publications - Balancing Work and Family Life - Chapter 8

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Chapter 8 - Key Issues and Challenges

8.1 Introduction

The three-fold objectives of this research study have been to:

  • identify the challenges and benefits to introducing family-friendly flexible working arrangements (drawing on best practice and research undertaken in Ireland and abroad).
  • identify the respective roles of public policy makers, employers and trade unions in taking forward such initiatives; and
  • provide scientifically based research evidence to inform the debate in this area and assist policy makers in identifying practical measures to further assist the development of family friendly initiatives in the Irish workplace.

Following a detailed review of available documentary and statistical evidence on the extent and character of family friendly/flexible working arrangements both nationally and internationally, as well as in-depth discussions with HR managers and Trade Union (TU) representatives and other key informants, it is now possible to draw conclusions regarding both the benefits and challenges of family-friendly working arrangements from a range of perspectives.

8.2 Key benefits and challenges

Accordingly, the purpose of this chapter is not to reconsider the detail previously presented in this report, but rather to identify key challenges and issues, to assist in plotting practicable ways forward and therefore assist policy makers in facilitating the wider implementation of family friendly initiatives in the Irish workplace. These key issues can be usefully drawn together under a number of headings.

8.2.1 Benefits of flexible working arrangements

Research evidence on best practice suggests that flexible working arrangements, when implemented effectively, can provide tangible benefits to both employers and employees.

  • From the employer's perspective, they can assist in facilitating the retention and attraction of staff, a factor which is of growing importance in an era of reduced labour supply and increasing demand by employees for arrangements which would enable them to achieve a more effective work-life balance. More innovative forms of flexible working arrangements can also potentially increase productivity and reduce operating costs. Additionally, the provision of such arrangements can enhance an organisation's image as a 'good employer'.
  • From the employee's perspective, flexible working arrangements are desirable, and in many cases, essential, as a means of enabling them to reconcile work and caring responsibilities. Their importance in this context is particularly significant in the light of other growing trends, including increased commuting times, and rising housing and childcare costs.

Best practice would suggest that the key challenge lies in providing arrangements that will meet the demands of both employers and employees. While the primary responsibility in providing for such arrangements needs to reside at the enterprise/workplace level, national level organisations have an essential role to play through informing, supporting and promoting their wider adoption.

8.2.2 Key challenges

Notwithstanding the arguments presented above, the findings of this research also indicate that flexible working arrangements within the Irish workplace have largely been introduced, not as part of a proactive range of family-friendly measures, but more frequently in response to changing external factors, most notably changing labour market trends and legal requirements. For example, most of the measures in the public service, most notably job-sharing and flexitime, have been introduced centrally usually as a result of government policy initiatives. In the commercial sector, reduced labour supply and specific legal developments, for example, the Parental Leave Act, (1998) have been key factors which have influenced the implementation of such measures. In contrast to the public service, flexible working arrangements in SMEs and large private sector organisations often appear to be implemented on an informal and often case-by-case basis.

The key issue is not so much whether such arrangements are formal or informal in nature, but rather with the manner in which they are developed and implemented. For example, recent research (Humphreys, Fleming and O'Donnell, 2000) suggests that flexible working arrangements work most effectively, from both the employer and employee viewpoints, when they are developed and implemented in a strategic, integrated manner. The content and process issues implied in the development of such an approach require further elaboration.

8.2.3 The challenge of integrating flexible working arrangements

As indicated above, it is important that flexible working arrangements are closely integrated with the strategic human resource planning (HRP) process at the workplace level, to ensure that the needs of both employers and employees are met. The key purpose of HRP is to ensure that the organisation, whatever its size, has the appropriate level and quality of human resources that it needs to deliver its business objectives. By necessity this implies a much more systematic approach to a range of HR issues, including the design and implementation of flexible working arrangements, in a manner which is responsive to a range of external factors, including changing labour market trends and legal developments. HRP also provides a process within which flexible working arrangements can be designed to complement other HR policies, e.g. concerning promotion, training and development policies, particularly in the context of equal opportunities concerns raised in this report. For example, the effectiveness of flexible working arrangements such as job sharing could be enhanced through the development of more innovative approaches to training and development, such as mentoring, as a means of meeting the developmental and career progression needs of those in less than full time working. Once more, while developments in this area are most appropriately taken forward at local level, national bodies have an essential leadership role to play.

A useful illustration of the stages involved in developing flexible working arrangements is presented in the Annex to this report in the form of a checklist. The role of policy makers in supporting such a process is considered in Sections 8.3 and 8.4.

8.2.4 Ongoing challenges - monitoring, recording and evaluation

This research highlights an apparently less favourable picture in relation to flexible working arrangements in Ireland compared to other OECD and EU countries. One of the real difficulties in quantifying the extent of family friendly/flexible working arrangements is the lack of comparable statistical data to enable informed comparison. There is clearly a need to measure better, and monitor the usage of flexible working arrangements at national level. Equally, at the workplace level, the findings research suggest that, within both the commercial and non-commercial sectors, there is a need for a more systematic recording of data in relation to participation in family friendly/flexible working arrangements. Better recording and monitoring of such data would also greater facilitate evaluation and comparison of the effectiveness of existing schemes.

In the public service, long-established arrangements, such as flexitime and job-sharing, may require re-evaluation in the light of changing external and business factors. The world has changed considerably since the 1980s, with growing commuting difficulties and the need to ensure a more effective fit between flexitime systems and changing customer service requirements. In the private sector, HR policies appeared to be formal and documented. As a consequence, evaluation and monitoring of the operation and effectiveness of flexible working arrangements was difficult. Finally, better recording and monitoring of trends in relation to flexible working arrangements could be used to assist implementation of a range of other HR policies, e.g. in relation to recruitment and retention strategies and in achieving equality of opportunity. Such monitoring, recording and evaluation has to be undertaken, and acted upon, at the enterprise/workplace level. In addition, there are benefits to be gained from the collation of such data at a sectoral level by appropriate national organisations. Finally, responsibility for improved official statistics to inform national policy development falls with the Central Statistics Office (CSO), under the guidance of the National Statistics Board.

8.2.5 Future challenges - more innovative forms of flexible working

In relation to new forms of flexible work, such as teleworking, recent developments (see National Advisory Council on Teleworking, 1999) highlight clear national support for such measures. During this study, interviewees acknowledged and recognised the feasibility of teleworking in technological terms and its potential desirability in terms of cost reduction, staff retention and better reconciliation of work and family life. At the same time, the research identified little evidence of teleworking at the workplace level. Instead, the research suggests that the primary barriers to the introduction of teleworking tend to be attitudinal, based for example around concerns regarding trust and control.

Teleworking is a feature of many advanced economies. Increasing problems in relation to commuting times, housing costs and staff retention highlight the benefits that teleworking would provide in addressing such issues. While attitudinal barriers can be difficult to break down, and may be specific to individual organisations, there would be clear merits to the public service taking a lead role in endorsing and implementing teleworking initiatives, just as it has been to the forefront in introducing earlier initiatives such as job-sharing. A similar approach could be adopted for the promotion of other innovative flexible working arrangements such as V-time (voluntary reduced time). Lessons learnt from such an initiative, if clearly and comprehensively disseminated, could assist in breaking down attitudinal barriers within other sectors. The important issue of dissemination will be addressed in more detail in Sections 8.3 and 8.4.

Finally, and perhaps more fundamentally, the evidence gathered during the research suggests that the development of more innovative working arrangements could be greatly facilitated by a more flexible and imaginative approach to the structuring of work. Rigid adherence to traditional, full-time patterns of working may reflect the needs of the past but are unlikely to be as appropriate to the dynamically evolving working patterns of the 21st Century. Frequently, the impression was gained that it is not flexible working arrangements that are problematic per se, but rather the way in which organisations attempt to place them on rigidly structured job arrangements. National-level bodies have a key role to play here in encouraging innovation/pilot schemes at sectoral and local levels.

8.3 The role of policy makers in family friendly initiatives

As a prerequisite to identifying the respective future roles of public policy makers, employers and trade unions in taking forward the development of family-friendly initiatives, it is important to clarify the existing roles of the many agencies concerned. The first point that must be raised in this regard is that no one government department or agency has a unique or clear remit to take forward these initiatives. At the same time, a wide number of bodies are involved in relevant policy areas.

Accordingly, it is useful to plot out these roles briefly:

  • The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is responsible for ensuring statutory provision for the employment rights, safety health and conditions of workers. It also provides the secretariat for the National Framework Committee established under PPF 2000 to support the development of family friendly policies.
  • The Department of Equality and Law Reform was merged with the Department of Justice in 1997. The overall goal of the Equality Division of that Department is to bring about a more equal society by outlawing discrimination and facilitating equal opportunity. The Department's recent Strategy Statement recognises that a number of key factors will shape actions required to attain this goal, including "the growing recognition of the need for interventions to facilitate equal opportunities and the reconciliation of work and family responsibilities, particularly as set out in the 1988 Employment Guidelines adopted by the EU Council" (Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, 1998, p. 52).
  • The Equality Authority, in addition to its broader remit of working towards the elimination of discrimination, also has specific responsibilities, including the promotion of equal opportunity in relation to matters to which the equality legislation applies, and the provision of information on the working of the Parental Leave Act, 1998.
  • Both the Departments of Enterprise Trade and Employment (through its relationship with the National Advisory Council on Teleworking), and the Department of Public Enterprise have a role to play in the development and promotion of teleworking initiatives.
  • The Department of Finance, and in particular, its Personnel and Remuneration Division, is responsible for the overall management of the public service in respect of remuneration, superannuation and industrial relations, while for the Civil Service, it has lead responsibility for key areas of personnel policy including conditions of service and equality.
  • The Department of Social Community and Family Affairs has a broad role to play in promoting measures in relation to better reconciliation of family and work responsibilities. This is recognised in their recent Strategy Statement in which, as part of their goal of promoting policies to protect and support families, they have stated that they will "through income support and other measures promote the reconciliation of work and family responsibilities, in consultation with other departments" (1998, p.17).
  • Finally, the Department of Taoiseach exercises a monitoring role, for example in relation to progress made in achieving the proposals set out the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (2000).

It must also be noted that, within the public service, departments and other agencies with responsibility for particular sectors of activity could also have a role to play in promoting best practice in areas such as education, health, local government etc. Such bodies would include the Local Government Management Services Board (LGMSB) and the Health Services Employers Agency (HSEA). The promotion of, and responsibility for, family friendly/flexible working arrangements in the Irish workplace is clearly a crosscutting issue that spans a range of departments and agencies. Recent research (Boyle, 1999, Boyle and Fleming, 2000) suggests that cross-departmental issues often require the establishment of new structures and processes to facilitate their development and implementation.

In this context, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, 2000 recognises the need for a national framework to be established to support family friendly policies at the enterprise level, and a range of measures are set out in the agreement to achieve progress within such a framework. The newly established National Framework Committee comprises representatives from IBEC, public sector employers and ICTU.

Clearly, the agenda set out for this new Committee is ambitious and demanding. As a consequence, the programme of work that will emerge from this forum is potentially extremely significant for the satisfactory resolution of outstanding issues identified by this study.

At the organisational level, however, there could still be clear merits to assigning a co-ordinating role to one department or agency in taking forward both the proposals developed by the National Framework Committee and the practical actions set out in section 8.4 of this report. In addition to facilitating a more focused and concerted policy response to the furtherance of family friendly initiatives, it would enable a better co-ordination of the efforts and activities of the range of public sector bodies that have been outlined above. Equally, from a quality customer service viewpoint, such an approach would also provide a more accessible and 'user-friendly' service, from both the employer and employee perspectives.

However, policy makers alone cannot secure the greater and more effective usage of flexible and family friendly working arrangements in the workplace. Ultimately, there remains a considerable onus on employers, both individually and collectively, to play a significant role in making such arrangements available to their employees. The challenge in encouraging employers in this regard are recognised in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (2000), in which it is stated that, 'The challenge in developing family-friendly policies relevant to the level of the enterprise is to find ways of developing approaches that reflect the reality of the workplace' (p. 42)

While there are clear business arguments to support the usage and development of such arrangements, with the exception of part-time working, atypical and innovative working arrangements have not generally been significant features of the Irish workplace. In addition, employers often perceive that increased regulation of arrangements would be undesirable. Given the business-case arguments identified earlier, there is a need for a much greater awareness on the part of individual employers as to the benefits and process involved in implementing such arrangements. At the same time, the level of awareness to date has not been helped by the myriad of departments/agencies that are involved in initiatives or policies relating to such arrangements. This suggests that there would be benefits to be gained from a more concerted effort by policy makers to disseminate information regarding the process and benefits of flexible working arrangements in a more accessible manner. This will be considered further in Section 8.4

Last but not least, trade unions have a key role to play in taking forward family friendly/flexible working arrangements. To date, the trade union movement does not appear to have been significantly involved in the promotion of such arrangements at workplace level. While there are understandable concerns about the potential abuse of such arrangements, there is also a responsibility on trade unions to respond to the changing demands of employees for more innovative forms of working. In this context, the partnership approach, which is becoming a central feature of both public and private sector organisations, could provide a useful forum within which the development of new flexible working arrangements could be developed and taken forward. Partnership committees potentially provide a means for unions, management and employees to take forward the achievement of change.

8.4 Next steps - identification of practical measures

To undertake and complete this study, information, research data and documentation on best practices were drawn from a wide range of sources. In some ways, this diversity of sources reflects the fragmented approach, from a policy perspective, which prevails in relation to the development and promotion of family friendly/flexible working arrangements. The potential benefits of one department/agency taking lead responsibility for developing and co-ordinating efforts in this regard have already been raised in Section 8.3. In the context of such a role, a number of practical measures should be considered to progress the developments and extension of flexible working arrangements in the workplace.

8.4.1 Dissemination of information

An issue which emerges clearly from the findings is the need for employers and employees to be better informed in relation to the nature of statutory (e.g. parental leave) and discretionary arrangements (e.g. teleworking, flexitime) that are available and how they might be operationalised. The approach adopted in the UK, whereby a voluntary organisation, New Ways to Work (NWW) disseminates information in the form of factsheets and guidelines might be considered as a potential approach in this regard. For example, NWW have produced practical guidelines to assist employers in introducing a range of flexible working arrangements. While a range of departments in the Irish public service produce and disseminate information in relation to specific issues such as parental leave and part-time working, there would be clear benefits to providing one source of contact for employers and employees in gaining access to such information.

8.4.2 The development of statistical information and research

The limited availability of authoritative statistics on atypical working patterns acts as real constraint on informed policy development and evaluation. Clearly, there is a need for more effective recording and evaluation of such trends, and policy makers have a key role to play in this regard. At the macro-level, official statistics need to reflect changing working arrangements, for example in relation to teleworking and less than full-time working arrangements. At the micro, or workplace, level, more detailed research and evaluation of the experience of and potential for development of such arrangements would greatly inform the debate in this area. It could also complement and enhance the process of dissemination to employers regarding best practice.

8.4.3 Greater collaboration

The benefits of assigning a co-ordinating role to one department/agency in promoting the development of flexible working arrangements have already been considered. In this context, there is a need to develop links with a range of representative bodies and groups to both assist in disseminating information and make an input into developments taking place at the workplace level. For example, in the context of the public sector, there is a need to take account of relevant developments arising from the work of the SMI working groups. In the private sector, benefits might also arise through collaboration with representative bodies, including IBEC and ISME, and organisations such as Leargas who have been involved in promoting and co-ordinating research under the ADAPT programme into flexible working arrangements in the SME sector. The pivotal role of the new Framework offers a considerable opportunity to take forward this agenda.

8.4.4 The changing nature of the family

Finally, it is important that policy efforts in relation to the promotion and development of family friendly/flexible working arrangements are responsive to changing demographic trends. The stereotypical view of what constitutes a family will need reassessment over time, just as the traditional family unit has changed considerably over the past decade. Clearly, in the interests of equity and the greater achievement of a work-life balance, it is important that policy efforts recognise the increasing diversity of family arrangements. The approach adopted in other countries, which recognises that individuals have a range of outside responsibilities and demands, in addition to those concerned with childcare, is of significance. In the Irish context, the White Paper on the framework for supporting voluntary activities and for developing the relationship between the state and voluntary and community sector highlights the difficulty of continuing to engage in voluntarism.

8.5 Conclusions

This report has studied in detail the impact to date and potential for the development of more innovative forms of flexible working arrangement in the Irish workplace. It clearly highlights the potential benefits to be gained from a greater utilisation of such measures. Policy makers have a key role to play in promoting such measures. At the same time, there will also be a considerable onus on individual employers to respond to changing labour market conditions by offering and extending such arrangements, to enable employees to better reconcile work and life responsibilities. In turn such a response has the potential to address a range of key organisational concerns most notably in relation to recruitment and retention of staff.


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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