UK: Tread softly on the path to flexible working.

UK: Tread softly on the path to flexible working. - With more manufacturers turning to flexible working practices, the competitive pressure on the laggards to follow suit grows ever more intense.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

With more manufacturers turning to flexible working practices, the competitive pressure on the laggards to follow suit grows ever more intense.

But taking the workforce with you on the need to change is never easy.

Case studies researched by the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD) and Cranfield University's School of Management show that once implemented, the new schemes, such as annualised hours, prove to be highly popular with employees. But they also suggest that overcoming the insecurity, uncertainty and entrenched attitudes of the workforce and some levels of management, is nearly always a very difficult task. So what advice do those who have already been through the process have on dealing with the inevitable and understandable resistance to change among those who work for you?

Dr Michael Cross is a consultant who has helped a number of major blue-chip manufacturers - among them GE - negotiate and implement flexible working practices at their operations. He believes that the key to making the breakthrough with the workforce is for management to understand what the changes mean at an individual level, instead of just looking at the average position. 'Companies need to recognise that they are often asking people to change their way of life. Management must view the changes through the eyes of individuals, in particular, those who are going to be most impacted, and find an arrangement that will appeal to them,' says Cross.

Until such considerations are taken on board the workforce will be wary: 'Flexibility means both everything and nothing until all the details are hammered out.'

During the hammering out of its 'New Look Employment' policy, which included an annualised hours arrangement, the management of Van den Bergh Food's margarine factory in Purfleet was very clear on what the company was trying to achieve. However, explains factory manager Neil Hufton, it was important that the new arrangements were co-developed through negotiations with the unions and workforce. In particular, the removal of overtime meant a loss of earnings for some, and so it was essential that a fair deal was established that balanced employer and employee benefits, and did not adversely affect the pay packet of these people. In achieving an overall win/win situation, something which Hufton insists is possible, the crucial factor 'was first developing and negotiating the principles of how we should work, and only after agreement on this, deciding the issue of money'.

Breaking down the issues into separate understandable components, and so avoiding the unnecessary confusion and conflict caused by blanket discussions, is also an approach now favoured by a number of unions. According to Lynn Williams, a national officer with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, there are three core elements to developing effective workforce versatility agreements. As well as the structural concerns, such as working hours, part-time employment and the pay and reward issues, there are also the functional aspects that must include multi-tasking, multi-skilling and training requirements. 'In order to understand the real issues concerned,' says Williams, 'it is crucial that people stop using blanket approaches and phrases that often have negative connotations, and focus on the specifics of developing a versatile workforce.'

Perhaps the one overriding factor is that the move to flexible working must not be assumed as an option that can be implemented quickly by the management. In fact, most schemes can take between 12 and 24 months to negotiate and implement and then it can easily be a further six months before the company sees any benefit as the workforce and management get used to the new practices. As Gerry Woodcock, personnel director at Iggesund Paperboard in Workington, notes, 'An essential element in achieving change is starting discussions in plenty of time.' This paves the way for sensible negotiations and allows more appropriate approaches to emerge. For example, it was during its discussion on a flexibility agreement that the Iggesund management recognised that the major blockage to change was not linked to money but to the fear that the removal of rigid job demarcation was the first step towards redundancies. So the final agreement was able to link flexibility with employment security.

In the final analysis it is only in the implementation of agreed changes where any resistance can be fully overcome. Developing trust between management and workforce is the all-important factor in making new labour strategies work. This takes time to build up, but can be destroyed by a single act.

Therefore, it is essential that any implementation is seen to be fair and that the principles agreed are kept to. 'Successful change is more than just communication and negotiation, it is also about actions,' concludes Hufton.

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