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Home work

Research into the effects of the family-friendly legislation
introduced in 2003, which extended maternity pay and introduced paternity pay,
has found a big increase in the number of working parents taking advantage of
benefits such as flexible working.

Nearly 50% of mothers and 31% of fathers worked flexible hours last year,
compared with 17% and 11% respectively in 2002, according to a recent Maternity
and Paternity Rights and Benefits survey by the Department of Trade and Industry
and the Department for Work and Pensions.

In 2005, mothers took an average of six months’ maternity leave compared with
only four months in 2002. The number of fathers taking two weeks’ paternity
leave also increased from 22% in 2002 to 36% last year.

The DTI and DWP also claim the legislation has improved retention rates. The
number of women who changed employer when they returned to work after maternity
leave dropped from 41% in 2002 to 20% last year. The government plans to
increase paid maternity leave from 26 to 39 weeks and make a proportion of the
leave transferable to partners.

Alan Johnson, former secretary of state for trade and industry, says that
employers have made a significant contribution to the success of the
legislation. “Employers recognise the benefits of better enabling employees to
balance work and home lives,” he says. “It saves time and money on recruitment
and training, while ensuring they keep the staff with the skills they need.”

The Trades Union Congress and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and
Development want all workers to be able to work flexibly, regardless of whether
they have children, as is already the case in some European countries.

Flexible rights

In Germany and the Netherlands, for example, the right to request flexible
working applies to all employees, except those employed in small firms. Since
2003, in the UK the right is limited to the parents of children under six, and
disabled children under the age of 18 and, from April 2007, employees caring for
adults. Even then, employers are only obliged to give such requests “reasonable
consideration”. Flexible working rights are enforceable by the courts in Germany
and the Netherlands, whereas in the UK it is limited to a right to request to
work flexibly.

The TUC believes that the right to request flexible work in the UK should be
extended to all workers, including older employees approaching retirement and
those wishing to learn new skills.

Rebecca Clake, CIPD organisation and resourcing adviser, says: “Flexible
working practices can be advantageous to organisations and employees. They give
people more control over when and where they work and this leads to more focused
and motivated employees. The introduction of flexible working allows employees
to gain more control over their work-life balance and can act as an important
tool in the organisation’s recruitment and retention process.”

Fair system

Clake adds that the new working arrangements also help attract underused
groups, such as parents and students. However, a central issue among employers
is how to implement and operate flexible working in practice as some employers
perceive such schemes to be difficult to implement and unfair to other workers.

“A significant number of employees have highlighted that line managers report
difficulties implementing flexible working practices,” says Clake.
“Organisations need to do more to get their line managers to buy-in. They need
to set clear criteria against which flexible working requests are assessed. This
will enable line managers to make informed decisions on requests for flexible
working and demonstrate fairness between employees. Employers should look for
opportunities to use flexible working where employee needs and business needs
coincide,” says Clarke.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber says: “Many UK bosses are too short-sig
hted to grasp the fact that a flexible approach to work is not something to fear
or too expensive, but a change that makes sound business sense, both in terms of
company profits and staff recruitment and retention. The UK’s long hours culture
will never be challenged if it’s only parents and carers who can ask to change
their hours, and if it remains all too easy for inflexible employers to say no.”

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