Time we considered work-life balance choice as a legal right


Comment:The day after Work-Life Balance Day, do we feel any more equipped to get the balance right in our own lives?

One way to achieve the elusive equilibrium could be to move away from working all day, every day in the office to more flexible working - reduced hours, flexible hours or home working. With 59 per cent of people owning a computer and 50 per cent having an internet connection, working from home using a computer link to the office could be feasible.

But are employers convinced enough of the win-win possibilities of flexible working to adopt it as a policy or do we need legislation? In April 2003, the UK introduced the legal right to request flexible working. The law does not compel employers to grant flexible working automatically; instead a formal policy is required to allow applications to be considered seriously. The law applies to parents of children under six and disabled children under 18. Next month, carers will be included, taking the total number of employees eligible to seek flexible working to 6.4 million. One UK minister is proposing that the rights be extended to all employees.

The Confederation of British Industry states in its Employment Trends Survey 2006 that "employers are increasingly turning to more flexible ways of working and reaping the benefits". This positive attitude is also reflected in a significant increase in companies granting flexible-working requests, up from 77 per cent in 2004 to 94 per cent in 2006.

Could similar legislation happen here? According to Mary Dooley from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, there are no plans "at this time to introduce legislation which would provide that right".

The department chairs the National Framework Committee for work-life balance policies, which supports employers and employees in addressing work-life issues. The committee's membership includes the employers' body Ibec, Ictu, the Equality Authority and Government departments, and it also absorbs varying standpoints on flexible working.

Finola McDonnell, social policy executive at Ibec, explains. "The voluntary approach to work-life balance encourages employers to recognise the value of the business argument and that it's worth buying into. Such a course is better for business than creating a regulatory framework."

Sally Anne Kinahan, assistant general secretary of Ictu, expresses the unions' view that "real progress will only come about through enshrining the right to flexible working in law".

With no legal right to flexible working, does this voluntary approach allow for enough awareness of work-life balance possibilities and create, for both employers and employees, the confidence to pursue them?

Some organisations are confident of the benefits of offering flexible working. Hewlett-Packard Ireland managing director Martin Murphy says that in the current market and environment, the company has to provide flexible work practices to attract and retain top talent. "There are also well-documented benefits concerning increased productivity."

Marie Fallon, acting sales director for the technology solutions group at HP, works from home in Galway two days a week. She can collect her children from school and, without the commute and with fewer interruptions in her home office, she is able to work more productively on reports, presentations and other administration.

She balances e-working with spending time with her team in Leixlip. "You have to agree with your line manager exactly what's expected from you in terms of your own performance and your ability to manage your team effectively," she says.

In lieu of legislation to require organisations take an equitable and strategic approach to flexible working, Murphy's advice may be useful: "Don't think of the potential negatives - focus on the positives. It's a leap of faith that can yield huge rewards for any company."