Flexibility is all very well

Kim Dungey looks at two more workplaces already providing flexible working arrangements and gets the view from the employer's side.

Employers' representatives say new legislation giving employees the right to request flexible work arrangements has had little, if any, impact. They claim what has made a difference is the tightening labour market and employers realising they need to be more flexible in order to attract and retain good staff.

Phil O'Reilly, chief executive of Business New Zealand, describes the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment Act 2007 - which was proposed by Green MP Sue Kedgley and supported by the Government - as the most "pointless piece of legislation" he has seen.

"Flexible hours is a great idea and people should be encouraged to think about it all the time. But passing silly laws is utterly irrelevant to that need and, in fact, is likely to get in the way of it."

Mr O'Reilly says the law fails to take account of the fact that flexibility is rarely an issue between just one employer and one employee but has an impact on everyone in a workplace. Traditionally, time off has been negotiated between staff on an as-needed basis, but the law would lead to "queuing".

"If you get your request in first, you'll get your flexibility. But if Dave gets in third, he won't."

Local employers' representatives say while it is early days, there has been no evidence of a rush of applications since the legislation took effect in July.

Duncan Simpson, chief executive of the Otago-Southland Employers' Association, and John Christie, his counterpart at the Otago Chamber of Commerce, say employers had become more flexible, anyway. And both see the trend towards flexible work continuing despite the economic downturn, with skill shortages in many areas, from IT and forestry to traditional trades such as electrical and plumbing.

A strong advocate of flexible work, despite misgivings about the legislation, Mr O'Reilly says different types of flexibility are suited to different types of workplaces. But no employer should use the excuse that flexibility is not possible.

"The traditional view of flexibility, where you allow people time off or to work from home, is much more capable of being put into place in offices and service environments.

"That's why it is most used in IT, consulting, banks and accountancy firms . . . But it is still possible in manufacturing plants, retail shops and bars. It just requires more thought and effort."

He says that as well as enabling employers to keep their "best and brightest", flexible work avoids what he calls "present-ism" - where employees are at work physically but their brains aren't.

"If you're stressing at work about something you want to be doing, if you're worried about your sick mum or about child care, you're much less likely to be a good employee at work."

New research from the Families Commission shows that for employees, the culture of a workplace plays a big part in whether or not they ask for flexible work arrangements. The need to maintain an adequate income and having the confidence to negotiate with managers are also important factors.

Mr O'Reilly says workers need to give the reason they are seeking flexibility and to engage with their employers rather than make demands.

Many employers have a "19th-century" mind-set of jobs being either full-time or part-time, but any job is just a collection of tasks, he adds.

Employees who can show how those tasks will be done each week under a new arrangement will increase their chances of success.

"An employer might worry that maybe the work won't get done or he might have to bring in a replacement and that will be expensive, or that he will have to put upon other employees to fill in.

"That's why employees should think not just about their circumstances but their workmates' circumstances and how [the arrangement] might work for everyone."

For more information on ways employers can introduce flexibility, go to the commentaries section of the Business New Zealand website, www.businessnz.org.nz.

For information on the Department of Labour's "Work-Life Balance Workplace Project", go to www.dol.govt.nz


Working to his own beat


Policeman and businessman Matt Scoles says one of the best parts of job sharing has been feeling invigorated about both roles.

Three days a week, he is a sergeant and community relations co-ordinator at the Dunedin Police Station and the other four, he helps his partner run their accommodation business.

"One of the big upsides of flexible employment options is that you're refreshed for both jobs," he says.

"When I come back to the police, it's like I'm coming back from a holiday every Monday. And it's the same with my role within my business."

The 34-year-old is the only Dunedin policeman working flexible hours - an option more commonly used by women caring for children. But his bosses were supportive when he suggested the idea.

Sgt Scoles is in the station from Monday to Wednesday, sharing the community relations role with Sgt Shona Low, who works Thursdays and Fridays. This means he is involved in two fields he enjoys, and the police get two experienced people who are positive about their work, he says.

"I guess some within the police could see it as being a bit of a cop-out in that you've got two people doing one job . . . but I beg to differ. In my case, I'm working hard to achieve in the three days I'm there."

Three months into the arrangement, Sgt Scoles and his superiors are still looking at how best to use his skills in the time available. As part of this, Sgt Low is taking on more of the youth education role.

"It's a work in progress, and that's half the battle with flexible employment options. Flexibility is the key word - not just in hours but in the work role as well.

"But I'm very grateful to be given the opportunity [of flexible work], particularly because I'm a sergeant and part of my responsibility is supervision of staff."

Making the arrangement work requires give and take, he says. He and Sgt Low talk most days and the latter goes to work on her day off to attend team meetings, something he would also do if the schedule changed.

"The police station doesn't stop because I'm not there four days a week. Others can't set meetings or catch-ups around Monday to Wednesday. And often I'm out in the evening [to meet] community groups.

"If there is a meeting on a Thursday evening, I don't just say, 'No, I don't work that day.' Generally I'll take off my suit, put my blue suit on and go out."

Job sharing meant losing three-fifths of his police salary, giving up positions he enjoyed - such as his place on the specialist negotiation team - and spending a frustrating few hours every Monday morning clearing email and telephone messages.

But Sgt Scoles says he loves the job he has been in for 12 years and did not want to leave.

"I see the move as very beneficial in terms of my work-life balance and it means I can support my partner and our business. For me, it's win-win all round."

In a class of their own

When two Dunedin teachers proposed job sharing 20 years ago, some accused them of trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Jane Hesson and Judith Evans-Weir were possibly the first in New Zealand to share a teaching role on a permanent basis, though they had heard of someone in Hampden doing it during lambing.

Both women had been permanent teachers at North East Valley Normal School before taking leave to have their first babies. A mutual friend knew they wanted to return to work and introduced them.

"We instantly liked each other," said Mrs Hesson, recalling how that first day they discovered they were both wearing the same perfume, both loved onions and had both recently had moles removed.

Today the women tend to finish each other's sentences and are not only colleagues but friends. But in 1988, they had to convince their bosses the job-sharing arrangement would be fair.

"You had to go through the ropes with the blinking Education Board," recalls Mrs Hesson.

One board employee insisted that job-sharing staff must be permanent teachers. The school's acting principal told her she could not have her cake and eat it too.

The new principal, who had lectured them both at teachers college, told her it would never work because Mrs Evans-Weir would have "all the scissors neatly in a row" and she would have them "all over the place".

"I'm a messy person and Judith is very organised," she says, laughing.

However, the principal changed his mind after a sympathetic ERO staff member convinced him he would be paving the way for women in education. And despite the principal's initial reluctance, Mrs Evans-Weir gives credit to the school for going along with what was a new idea at the time.

Initially, the women worked half days but now they each work two full days and share on Tuesday, when a student from the college of education is often in their year 5 and 6 classroom.

Mrs Evans-Weir attends a staff meeting on Mondays and Mrs Hesson goes to their syndicate meeting on Wednesdays. The women cover for each other if one is away and also relieve for other teachers in the school.

The arrangement is good for their pupils, Mrs Hesson says.

"Judith is very much into maths and science and I go the other way so they get good coverage of everything."

Mrs Evans-Weir adds all children have teachers they prefer and in this case, they get to have their favourite for half the week. At first, some pupils tried to play one teacher off against the other, but that happens less often now, partly because they are "quite organised and talk about what happens".

There are some drawbacks. Mrs Hesson says by being away on a particular day, they can miss important information like knowing that a pupil's uncle has died or being introduced to a new staff member.

Mrs Evans-Weir adds they earn only half the usual salary, which was an issue when she had to pay for child care.

But the benefits included being able to spend time with their own children when they were young and take them to after-school activities when they were older.

Others are being able to do things for themselves, like exercising or meeting friends, and feeling refreshed when they go back into the classroom after a day away.

Another bonus, Mrs Hesson says, is having someone else to help write reports.

"It's been great."



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