Making flexible hours work in the infrastructure industry
Flexible working is becoming more commonplace across multiple sectors within the world of work, and it is becoming an increasingly important job satisfaction consideration for workers. In a recent study , 36% of those working in engineering and manufacturing said they would prefer a more flexible approach to working hours over a 3% pay rise. With engineers making up an important proportion of the infrastructure workforce, there is a need to consider how flexible hours can work in infrastructure.
We ask: What are the principles of flexible working? What does the law say about flexible working? Who benefits? And can flexible hours work in the infrastructure industry?
According to the UK government , ‘flexible working is a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, e.g. having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.’ It’s a term used to describe a wide range of work styles and employment practices.
There are a number of different types of flexible working:
One job and the hours for it are split between two or more people.
Depending on the type of work, some or all work can be accomplished at home, or somewhere else that is not the primary work place.
Working fewer hours than full time.
Compressed hours may be useful for staff who wish to continue to work current total hours and retain current benefits but would prefer to compress the hours into a shorter working week or fortnight, thereby allowing some ‘free time’ during the normal working week.
The employee chooses when to start and finish, but works agreed ‘core hours’.
A number of hours are delivered over a year, but the employee has flexibility over their exact work time. This can incorporate regular ‘core hours’ and extra hours when there is demand for it.
Annual hours contracts can 'average' full- or part-time employment across the period of a calendar year.
Start, finish and break times are different from other workers.
An individual has no guarantee of a minimum number of working hours, so they can be called upon as and when required and paid just for the hours they work.
Since 30 June 2014 every employee has had the statutory right to request flexible working. Prior to this the right to request flexible working was only given to parents with children under 17 and those with certain care responsibilities. Employees must have worked for the same employer for at least 26 weeks to be eligible, and can only make a request once in a 12-month period.
These are legal requirements. Employers must:
• consider the request once received in writing
• in considering the request employers must not discriminate unlawfully against the employee
• inform the employee of the decision as soon as possible
• deal with requests in a ‘reasonable manner’
An employer can refuse an application if they have a good business reason for doing so. Reasons to consider must be one of the following:
• the burden of additional costs
• an inability to reorganise work amongst existing staff
• an inability to recruit additional staff
• a detrimental impact on quality
• a detrimental impact on performance
• detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
• insufficient work for the periods the employee proposes to work
• a planned structural change to your business
These are good employment practice rather than legal requirements. Employers should:
• make it clear what information employees must include in their written request. Details in section 3 of this document .
• hold a meeting to discuss the request with the employee
• allow the employee to be accompanied by a colleague to the request meeting
• accept or reject the request in writing to avoid future confusion
• if accepted, discuss how and when the changes will be implemented with the employee
• if rejected, allow the employee to appeal the decision
Flexible working arrangements can play a vital role in organisation performance. Flexible working has become excessively associated with the needs of parents and carers to the detriment of its positive role in enabling employers to manage their business more effectively.
As described on the government’s official page on flexible working, it’s a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, so employees are certainly the primary beneficiary of flexible working.
Stephen Williams, Head of Equality at ACAS talks about what flexible working is today:
“Flexible working as we currently know it was never intended to give people a right to have flexible working, more give people a right to ask. Whether to grant this to an employee is a judgement call on behalf of the business owner, and this is the challenge of flexible working. It isn’t necessarily for all positions. Some job roles need to be rigid in terms of working hours, and to be fair that’s fine.”
• improved work-life balance
• work fits better around childcare, care of disabled or elderly relatives, or the commute
Although flexible working is designed to assist employees, Dr Heejung Chung, Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy, University of Kent , observes that it could potentially have negative consequences.
Many workers are losing their negotiation power, allowing employers to expect more output from employees without paying for the extra number of hours worked.
Part-time work can be beneficial to balance work with family lives, but for those who wish to go back to full time, employers in the UK are not obligated and may not grant this. This is not the case globally, for instance employees in the Netherlands have strong negotiation powers.
When flexible work arrangements are used in competitive work environments, employees may find that it can result in working more hours. Because of this employees themselves can end up not attaining the goals they may have originally wanted from flexible work i.e. equal freedom to dedicate time to other aspects of their lives when suits them best.
“Increased flexibility at work does allow us to do many things that were not possible before and, yes, this does have the potential to provide workers with a better work-life balance.
“However, we need to be aware of the honey trap where the sweetness of freedom lures us into ever diminishing boundaries between work and life, a job that never ends, or into making irreversible decisions that have dire consequences for our future careers,” writes Dr Chung in an article for The Conversation .
With jobs that have strict boundaries on work e.g. employees must physically be at a location in order to do their job, or the work space locks up at 5pm every day, there is a higher likelihood that their work will not extend to the life environment.
The challenges that flexible working poses are to both employees and employers. The challenge for employers is to how to manage the diverse schedules of workers when the workplace becomes more flexible, and for employees, how they are going to make sure to keep their boundaries between work and family life so that the two do not provide any conflicts.
The role of managers and employee representatives becomes increasingly important if flexible working is to work for all parties. They can incorporate a concerted effort to identify if work hours and workload are balanced, and provide solutions for this if not. Managing expectations on both sides is important to ensure that both employees and employers are satisfied with the work arrangement.
There is always room for employers to incorporate flexible working, and both managers and workers have a significant role to play in making this happen.
There are, however, advantages for employers too:
• employees are more motivated
• employers can retain staff despite changing personal circumstances of employees
Employers who have job vacancies for project-based work can also find challenges and benefits in the nature of their work. Because project-based contract work needs flexibility in terms of distribution of work hours throughout the day, week and year, and also often has varying physical locations, the employee needs to be flexible and understands this when applying for a job.
The advantage is that those who have the necessary skills for such specific work will often be looking for project-based work. There are a great number of skilled infrastructure workers looking for contract work. The disadvantage is that the more flexibility needed for each individual project, the smaller this number will become.
We have found that highways recruitment and railway recruitment often need the most flexibility, and can even benefit from a flexible working approach. A great deal of physical maintenance work needs to be carried out at the most advantageous time of day, week, and year for the benefit of both road and rail users, and those working in infrastructure jobs. This is to minimise delays to journey times, but also to ensure that work conditions are as safe as possible for those working on the UK’s highways and railway lines.
Find out more about our road and rail recruitment services below.
The impact of flexible working on productivity will certainly be a key concern for employers. Stephen Williams, ACAS, talks about how their Building Productivity framework can help employers when considering requests:
“Flexible working has many touch points within our Building Productivity framework . Well-designed work is needed to incorporate flexible working, the handling of requests is hugely important to fairness, and successful flexible working arrangements not only rely on but can help build a high level of trust – for instance when someone is working from home.
“The framework is something that can help you when considering flexible working requests.”
Stephen Williams also addressed some questions about the type of jobs and industries that may be better suited to flexible working.
“All jobs can be done flexibly with imagination and a commitment by both employers and employees.
“Managers you think might not be best suited to flexible working, due to their job role naturally involving a great deal of communication with other people, and communication being easiest in face-to-face situations. However, staff managers can job share, just one of the options that ensures employers are not left in a situation where there is no one to keep up the communication.”
“No – the same as above applies; all jobs can be done flexibly.”
“With project-based work, there is a certain goal, to be delivered in a certain time, and at a certain cost – which adds up to the project itself dictating what kind of working hours are needed. Often employees can work variable hours with time off in lieu – a form of compressed hours. Home working is an option for certain job roles within project-based work, particularly for those leading a team.
“Inherent flexibility in the nature of a job is one thing, but flexible working should have some benefit to the employee. Traditionally employers tend to think of part-time working, and this is linked to the biggest users of flexible working having care responsibilities, mostly women. However, there are a number of ways to incorporate flexible working, not just part-time, which can offer those with care responsibilities the flexibility they need, and be better for employers too. Especially those employers for whom part-time work isn’t really workable.
“It would be good practice going forward for employers to consider all their vacancies available flexibly by default and then only change this when they consider there are business reasons why this would not be practicable.”
Flexible working is happening in infrastructure, but not to the extent where it is common. Statistics from various sources show that STEM sectors are not embracing flexible working:
• Opportunities for flexible working in STEM sectors are sparse, and where they are offered, they are often in poorly paid jobs, with short-term contracts. 50% of available part-time work in Wales is low paid work. (WEN Wales cited research in Women in Workplace, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee - First Report, June 2013 )
• Only 6% of engineering companies offer flexible working. 57% do not have gender diversity initiatives( Skills & Demands from Industry - 2015 Survey, IET)
• In a survey carried out in 2014, 60% of women found that there were barriers which prevented them returning to careers in STEM after a career break. Second to financial difficulties, such as the cost of childcare, was time at 27% of respondents: not enough flexitime, job sharing, condensed hours, part time opportunities. More flexible working patterns were identified as being an enabler to allowing women to return to work. This would allow costs relating to childcare and commuting to be cut.(Women in STEM: Are you in or Out?, WES, 2014 http://www.wes.org.uk/return )
Flexible working is an important consideration for the Women’s Engineering Society as one of their aims is to evolve workplace cultures so that women have the full range of flexible working options available.
Benita Mehra, President of the Women’s Engineering Society , has operated in the aviation, housing and health sectors with roles including design and construction of major terminal buildings, and has used her masters in project management to formalise her on-the-job skills. She provided us with 3 ways of supporting flexible working in infrastructure industries:
1. Think carefully and split the role into 2-3 roles – this involves a lot of cooperation as infrastructure-related projects involve being flexible and going to where the work is, and this is difficult for parents as it can involve working away from home. This involves a lot of cooperation both between the job sharers and the employer as infrastructure-related projects and the job roles are not crafted to be shared. These projects require individuals to be flexible and travel to where the work is, and this can be difficult for parents who are fixed by school-aged children and their demands, as it sometimes involves working away from home, so think carefully.
2. Consider each person as a talented individual and find alternative jobs – e.g. moving from on-site construction or supervision, to operating in the bid team, becoming a specialist in design etc. This isn't new, but it involves the organisation thinking about its resources as a vital commodity and not being so rigid in its structure, leading to greater loyalty. This is often tricky in small companies as there are fewer opportunities. This is also a key way to ensure that talent is not lost, an important consideration for employers when they need particularly skilled employees.
3. Keep in touch – make flexible working something that is truly visible across companies and projects e.g. posters in communal areas, managers across the breadth of the organisation regularly talking about flexible working. This will help foster a culture where everyone sees flexible working as a possibility. When advertising a job role, rethink the way adverts are framed – formalising flexible/remote working in a job description can make jobs more attractive. Particularly where skilled talent is needed, employers should be prepared to offer flexibility from the beginning.