Irish businesses must embrace reduced-hours work or lose talent

Reduced-load working is a way to retain staff while letting them stay on the career ladder

“Managers who seek to impose some mechanistic, generic solution are likely to fail.’ Photograph: iStock

“Managers who seek to impose some mechanistic, generic solution are likely to fail.’ Photograph: iStock

 

Flexitime, job shares and part-time hours have all worked to varying degrees for employees who don’t want the usual 9-5 routine. But there have always been issues around the impact of not working full time on promotional prospects and the stress of trying to squash five days’ work into a four-day week.

Reduced workload is an emerging or “next practice” trend that allows employees to continue contributing at a high level but for fewer hours, without jeopardising career advancement or trying to do the same amount in half the time.

The attraction of the reduced-load option for an employer is that it allows them to retain an experienced employee who might otherwise retire or leave to get the better work-life balance so many people now want, having lived through a pandemic. Talent is tight and reduced workload, provided companies can get their heads around how it works and are mature enough to implement it, could be a new weapon in staff retention, especially among senior employees and those in the professions who don’t want to work a week that’s wall to wall in billable hours.

Norway was well ahead of the curve on reduced-load thinking. In 2006 it introduced reduced hours for all teachers over the age of 55. This initiative cut their lesson load by just under 6 per cent a week with no loss of pay. In Norway’s case the thinking was that putting in fewer teaching hours would reduce stress and promote better health outcomes in this cohort while maintaining productivity.

Keeping older people in the workforce for longer has long been high on the OECD’s agenda, as population ageing is one of the biggest challenges facing many developed countries. However, doing so may require a shift in thinking around job design and the introduction of incentives such as reduced load to keep older workers on the pay roll.

“Reduced-load working is under-researched and misunderstood but it can work very well for certain phases of someone’s career and the capacity to flex the intensity of workloads to align with the rhythm of family or personal life is intuitively appealing,” says Peter Robbins, assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at DCU. “Any organisation that can develop a viable blueprint in which reduced-load working could be implemented would have a significant edge in attracting and retaining talent.”

Post-pandemic world

Robbins has recently completed a piece of research looking at the future of work in a post-pandemic world. It involved input from 17 companies operating here, including Axa, Flogas, Ibec, Indeed, Coca Cola and Revolut, and was commissioned by Ciara Garvan, founder of recruitment company WorkJuggle, which was set up in 2018 to focus on non-traditional working arrangements.

“When we first commissioned this report, which is very much an Irish employees’ take on things, it was a very different world,” she says. “Initially we had wanted to explore trends around flexible and remote working.”

What no one could have envisioned was the scale of the global remote working experiment that kicked off in 2020.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Covid has changed everything from a working pattern perspective. Yet, in many ways the last 18 months have not been remote working at all. They have been pandemic working, robbed of our normal support systems while grappling with anxiety, caring responsibilities and a constant stream of often terrifying news.

“In terms of employee expectations, however, the pandemic has empowered people to ask very probing questions about how they want to work. At the same time, the war for talent means employers are more open to different approaches.

“Reduced load was one of the very interesting possibilities to come out of the DCU research and it is certainly something we’ll be introducing to clients,” Garvan adds.

“However, there is still one serious nut to crack and that’s the poor attitude in Ireland to senior employees who want to work flexibly or with a reduced load. It’s time we moved on from the negative associations surrounding it and looked instead at customising the senior management load in a way that works for both sides.

“It is also important to be honest about the challenges in relation to flexible working, career progression and the gender pay gap because they are all connected and part of a larger conversation.”

Promotion problem

Garvan’s other hope is that as flexible working becomes more normalised, it may become less of a barrier to promotion. There is a prevailing perception here that flexibility somehow signals reduced commitment.

Robbins says that one thing to emerge with certainty from the research is that in the design of any type of future flexible working arrangements, the clue is in the title. “Managers will need to be flexible and sensitive to the particular needs of their roles and their people,” he says.

“Managers who seek to impose some mechanistic, generic solution are likely to fail. This will require less of a command-and-control management style and more of a facilitative one. Serious thought must be given to how working models are designed – whether they’re remote, reduced, flexible or hybrid – and HR and business managers need to be open to all the possibilities.

“They also need to be able to offer flexible workload solutions without the associated assumption that the employee is simultaneously forgoing their expectation of progression within the organisation.”

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