Flexible hours: an issue sinking in research

Peter Dunne, whose UnitedFuture party tediously promotes “families” as if other parties are family-hostile, inevitably declared his support for the 24 hours of hokum branded Children’s Day.

Dunne’s statement prompted Alf to visit UnitedFuture’s website, which in turn prompted a visit to the Families Commission website.

Lo and behold, the commission not only favours flexible working hours.

It also has been researching the matter.

More research? How much bloody research do we need?

Let’s start with Dunne. His media statement linked Children’s Day with the Jobs Summit

“Yesterday, we had the Job Summit and tomorrow we mark Children’s Day, and the two are strongly linked… Many of the New Zealanders we are trying to keep in work through this difficult time want to keep their jobs so they can keep providing for their children,” Mr Dunne said.

“I think Children’s Day is a timely reminder that our young ones are our most vulnerable members of society, and we need to protect them in every way we can from becoming victims of the hard times in which now find ourselves.”

Dunne alerted readers of his statement to further information on UnitedFuture’s child and family policies on his party’s web-site.

And so to the Families Commission, the outfit set up as part of UnitedFuture’s coalition agreement with the previous Clark Government.

On 24 February it welcomed the work that would be done at the Prime Minister’s Job Summit to find useful and creative ways to keep as many New Zealanders as possible in work during the recession.

Chief Commissioner Jan Pryor said –

“People are the most valuable asset of any business. Keeping them and their families well supported during tough economic times will be vital.

“Our research shows some ways in which business, employees and government could work together to both find solutions and support families.”

What followed was common sense, hardly requiring research –

Cooperation and communication at all levels was vital and should always include those who will be affected by planned changes, she said.

“We particularly encourage those planning to introduce changes in work hours or other flexible work options to discuss and agree on the plans with staff. This can help identify and manage any potential difficulties. For example, asking employees to work longer hours or different hours might be a logical solution for some employers.

However it can create enormous difficulty for staff with children who need to find appropriate childcare. Discussions can help find a mutually agreeable solution.”

The Commission’s research shows that flexible work practises can be a win win result for both employers and families of staff – especially when there’s been discussion to find what will work best for both.”

Research, research, research…

Back in October, Labour’s Trevor Mallard was releasing research that showed more than 60 per cent of employers offer their workers flexible working hours and say it has a positive effect.

The Labour Department report, Work-Life Balance and Flexibility in New Zealand: A snapshot of employee and employer attitudes and experiences in 2008, finds that more than two-thirds of employers are either supportive or very supportive of flexible work. Sixty per cent say the impact of flexible work arrangements is either positive or very positive.

“It is great to see that employers are embracing new ways of organising their workplaces. It is likewise encouraging to see they are listening and responding to the needs of their workers and they recognise the business benefits of greater flexibility,” Trevor Mallard said.

The report was released three months after the passage of legislation giving employees with care responsibilities the right to request flexible work arrangements.

But as a sign of the previous government’s feeble grasp of the worsening economy, Mallard was not advocating flexible working hours to help deal with burgeoning unemployment.

“A fundamental shift in the New Zealand labour market over the past decade means unemployment levels are expected to remain at low levels for the foreseeable future. With record numbers participating in the labour force, and with continuing skill shortages, the days of readily available labour are over.

“This means workplaces need to become even more flexible to continue to attract and retain the people we need in an increasingly competitive local and global labour market.”

The report Mallard brandished was part of the Department of Labour’s programme of work focused on improving workplace culture and practices.

It complemented other research recently undertaken by other organisations, such as the Families Commission and Equal Employment Opportunities Trust.

The flexible working hours legislation, by the way, was initiated by the Greens.

In background notes on the legislation , Sue Kedgley referred to studies showing flexible working arrangements not only make life easier and more enriching for parents and children but also benefit employers and the economy as a whole.

Overseas studies show that a parent’s work and family balance impact on their job satisfaction and workplace productivity and safety at work, and that workplaces which allow for more flexible working arrangements have reduced absentee rates, staff turnover and therefore recruitment costs and improved morale and workplace productivity. More flexible working arrangements also enable employers to retain employees with valuable skills and knowledge who would otherwise leave the workplace to care full time for their families.

The bill is based on successful UK legislation which came into effect in 2003 and has been in operation since then. A recent review of the UK legislation concluded that it has been successful in changing workplace culture and making it more family friendly for employees with young children.

She also said –

Research has repeatedly identified the tension of balancing paid work and family responsibilities as a major social issue in New Zealand. It suggests that for many parents, conventional working hours are not convenient and that many parents in paid employment are under severe pressure trying to work full-time and care for their children at the same time. It also suggests that many parents drop out of the labour market because they can’t find ways of combining paid work and the demands of looking after young children.

Alf is bound to wonder how much more research on flexible working hours is needed. Oh, and just how many taxpayer-funded departments, ministries, commissions and whatever do we need to instigate and spend public money on this work?

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