Flexible working: Why are so many Irish companies resistant?

Many firms say they are open to the idea of flexible working but the reality is different

“We’ve seen a big shift in attitude to flexible working over the last three years, and it is fast becoming a bargaining tool.” Illustration: Getty Images

“We’ve seen a big shift in attitude to flexible working over the last three years, and it is fast becoming a bargaining tool.” Illustration: Getty Images

 

There’s a bit of nimbyism (not in my back yard) in Irish business when it comes to flexible working. Companies say they support the concept, but when it comes to actually introducing it, they come up with all sorts of reason for why it “won’t work in my business”.

The wider introduction of flexible working is also being hampered by the nine-to-five mentality that demands employees are physically present during these hours even though they may be a lot more productive working from home or keeping flexible hours.

Karen O’Reilly set up recruitment agency Employmum in 2016 to “specialise in flexible, part time, remote and flexi-hours and everything in between”, because she found it impossible to find good-quality paid work with flexible hours when she returned to Ireland.

The preferred option seems to be flexible hours as people like the balance of being available for their family and the social interaction of the workplace

“I was an accountant with over 20 years’ professional experience and assumed I’d have no trouble finding work that could also accommodate my family responsibilities. I was wrong,” she says.

Employmum is currently running a campaign called #Flexit, which recognises companies offering genuine flexible working options. “One of the main reasons for this initiative was that, once you scratched the surface, you found flexible work was not really on the table for all employees,” O’Reilly says.

“This disconnect struck a chord, and the companies that are committed to the concept now want people to know, not least because it’s a plus when it comes to attracting staff, especially women.

“We’ve seen a big shift in attitude to flexible working over the last three years, and it is fast becoming a bargaining tool. Companies are also beginning to wake up to its positive impact on the bottom line.”

Men too

Flexible working is not just something women want. A quarter of Employmum’s placements are now men, and the company is setting up a second service, Employflex, to reflect this and expand its client base.

Dave Russell is managing partner of specialist interiors construction company Holden, and a positive advocate for flexible working. “We look at mutually beneficial working arrangements as an advantage that would be reckless to ignore,” he says.

“Technology and modern workflows make it an entirely realistic option, and there has never been a problem with people not being there when they were needed. We have set meetings and everyone shows up for them but, after that, we are open to anything that’s reasonable when it comes to how people structure their hours.

Many large corporates view returners as ‘reliable interns’. They were happy, eager in fact, to employ me but they didn’t want to pay.

“In reality, we find that the variation is small enough and is very manageable. The question I always ask is why would you rule out someone with great skills and experience for the sake of a few hours here or there?”

Karen O’Reilly says there is no one size fits all when it comes to flexible working. “For some it’s shorter hours every day, whereas someone else might prefer three long days with two days off. It’s really what works for the person and the business,” she says.

“From surveying our candidates, the preferred option seems to be flexible hours as people like the balance of being available for their family and the social interaction of the workplace.”

However, O’Reilly sounds a note of caution about remote or home working.

“Systems must be in place for it to work,” she says. “A manager will need to learn the skills to manage a team remotely just as much as an employee needs to learn how to work remotely. It is a completely different way of working, which needs a proper structure.

“Some would suggest that this is why remote working policies have failed and organisations such as Yahoo and Bank of America have reduced or stopped it.”

Common sense

Michael Dineen’s company, Contracting Plus, employs 200 people and offers flexible working. “It’s given me access to experienced employees who have repaid our commitment to flexibility tenfold,” he says.

“Of course introducing it requires a bit of effort, and it’s not always possible to facilitate it in every role. I also understand that companies can be reluctant because they feel it sets a precedent, but the contracting model is one way to deal with this. To me it’s common sense, as otherwise people will go elsewhere, and given the tightness of the labour market, they can do this relatively easily.

“As a country we also invest in educating our people. Why not give them the working options they want to encourage them to stay here?” Dineen says.

One woman’s experience of returning to the workforce and looking for flexible hours was not positive.

“Many large corporates view returners as ‘reliable interns’. They were happy, eager in fact, to employ me (I ticked their diversity box) but they didn’t want to pay. Apparently the joy I would feel from being given this returning chance would be payment enough. These companies like to present themselves as forward thinkers and as genuine and flexible workplaces of the future, when really it is just lip service.”

Types of flexible work

Part time – up to 32 hours a week.

Remote work – working off site or at home.

Flexihours – may involve core hours with flexibility at either end.

Compressed hours – working five days in four.

Annualised hours – self-structuring the working year.

ROWE (results-only work environment) – paid by results, not time.

Jobshare – two people sharing one job.

Half-day Friday – making the time up during the working week.

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