Experience in different countries
The schemes that are being tried out in different countries are very varied, and study of their results is steadily increasing our knowledge of the factors involved so that improvements can be made and mistakes corrected.
The following pages are an attempt to pick out the main findings from some of the experiments. The findings quoted are of course drawn from case studies and in-plant surveys, since there are no official statistics that could be used.
In Belgium, a conference held at Diepenback in March 1974 made a first assessment of the results of the introduction of flexible working hours.2 The exchange of views indicated that, for companies, the measurable benefits were mainly a decline in absenteeism and overtime, lower personnel turnover and fewer work-related and travel-related accidents. Other benefits that were more difficult or impossible to measure were a better atmosphere at work, greater motivation among the employees, better use of working time, better performance and, in general, a degree of job satisfaction. The specific benefits of flexible hours for the workforce were easier travel to and from work, adjustment of hours to the pace of the individual, some relaxation of the feeling of being tied down by one's work, and a sense of greater individual freedom. On the other hand, short absences for special reasons (for example, visits to the doctor, or urgent personal or family matters), which were accepted as part of normal working hours under the conventional system of fixed working hours, now had to be made up for by equivalent work time. Another point was the drop in earnings resulting from the decline in overtime.
In Canada, it has been pointed out that, unlike the compressed work week, which is generally adopted by majority vote and may not meet individual needs, the flexible hours system permits individuals to select the hours that suit them best, so that there is nothing to prevent them from continuing with the former fixed schedule. It has also been noted that, although flexible hours do not imply a reduction of working time, their introduction usually provides an opportunity for reviewing the position in regard to working hours as a whole.1 Flexible hours were instituted on an experimental basis in 1972 and 1973 in the public service and in some establishments in the services sector, and in each instance the overwhelming majority of those concerned favoured adoption of the new plan.
The idea of flexible hours is also gaining ground in Ireland. Few concerns in the private sector have as yet shown interest, but the public authorities recently announced their intention of introducing the scheme in government services. At present the system is in operation in several insurance companies and for staff employees in perhaps a score of other companies. At Glenn Abbey Ltd. a knitted goods manufacturer, about 30 workers in the data-processing department work flexible hours. Here the initiative came from the workers themselves and not, as in most cases, from management. After a six-month trial period, 95 per cent of the department were in favour of continuing the scheme, and the management agreed with them because of the decline in overtime and absenteeism. Judging by the replies of some other establishments to questionnaires, once a scheme is in operation, it is generally regarded as an improvement by employees and employers alike. However, the trial periods revealed a number of problems in the matter of checking attendance.
In unionised firms, questions such as the degree of flexibility and the length of the core period have normally been discussed with union representatives. The maintenance of certain privileges, such as permitted absence for visits to the doctor, has been a matter for negotiation, as has the length of the lunch break.
Another interesting experiment with flexible hours took place at the Irish Productivity Centre (IPC) at the initiative of the management. An unexpected move from the town centre to an area less easily reached involved a number of problems that could only be overcome by introducing flexible working hours. Apart from the increase in daily travel time, workers were finding it more difficult to get a proper lunch (there were no restaurants near the new premises), to do their shopping, to go to the theatre, etc.
Experience so far with flexible hours in Ireland suggests that they will be introduced in the public service as a whole and will also spread in the private sector; however, they are unlikely to be applied to manual workers for some time.l
In Australia, the labour Department conducted a survey on flexible working hours in October-November 1973 covering 20 undertakings in the public and private sectors. It also carried out a three-month experiment covering a small sample group (45 persons, of whom 27 were men and 18 women) working in three different areas of its central office in Melbourne. While many of the findings and conclusions of the survey2 tallied with those reached in other countries, the results of the department's own experiment showed that, notwithstanding the size of the flexible periods and the range of choice in the matter of starting and finishing hours, by the end of the third month the participants tended to arrive and leave at about the same times as those prescribed under the former fixed schedule. The experiment was made using the following periods: spread of the working day, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; core time, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; flexible periods, 8 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m.; lunch break, 1 to 2 p.m.3
In the United States, where the compressed work week appears to be preferred to other ways of rearranging working time, interest in flexible hours is nevertheless growing, particularly in the federal government services. Detailed information and conclusions on experiments with flexible hours are not yet available, but employers appear to feel that the advantages of the scheme outweigh its drawbacks. A report4 covering 59 public and private employers that had tried flexible hours showed that two main systems were being used. In the first, adopted in 19 establishments, employees had to work the same number of hours each day but had some latitude in the scheduling of those hours; the working day was from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and core time from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Under the second system adopted in 40 establishments, the number of hours worked in a day could vary provided a prescribed number were completed each week.
Of the 19 establishments experimenting with the first system, 10 reported an increase in productivity and none a decline; 12 reported a decline in lateness and only one an increase; six a decline in absenteeism and only one an increase; two a decline in overtime and none an increase. On the debit side, six firms reported some increase in overhead costs resulting from the spread of the working day. Similar results were reported by the 40 other firms. Productivity had increased in 18, and none reported a decline; lateness and absenteeism had declined in 34 and 22 firms respectively, and no firm reported an increase. Overtime was reported by 11 firms, and an increase in overtime by two. Only three firms reported some increase in overhead costs.
None of the firms reported any major problems, except perhaps some difficulty in ensuring attendance in the early morning or late afternoon. On the whole, flexible hours seem to have been regarded as benefiting all concerned, especially those with considerable responsibilities outside their work.
In the United Kingdom, employers' impressions after experimenting with flexible hours have been generally favourable.1 The surveys made so far have covered no more than a dozen firms or groups of firms, but employers reported a reduction in time-keeping losses and a quicker start on arrival at work. Most employers thought that the system had had little effect on productivity, but a sizeable minority mentioned some improvement and only a few mentioned a decline. In spite of the additional costs on time-recording procedures, none of the employers surveyed desired to return to fixed hours. Moreover, the anticipated difficulties in communication and co-ordination had not materialised.
As to employee reactions, flexible hours were generally regarded as an important innovation, permitting greater personal freedom and a better balance between private and working life. Despite differences in the percentage of favourable and unfavourable answers on particular points of detail (daily travel to work, for example, or time-recording methods), the over-all conclusion was that the advantages of the system largely outweighed its drawbacks; indeed, a large proportion of employees saw no drawbacks in the system at all. Suggested improvements in the schemes currently in operation centred overwhelmingly on even greater flexibility, i.e. a wider choice of starting and finishing times, reduced core time, greater flexibility in the lunch break and more provision for carrying over credit hours to take time off.
Trade union reactions have varied. Some unions, for example, the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs and the National and Local Government Officers' Association and the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staffs, favour the adoption of flexible hours (with some reservations in the latter case). On the other hand, the Technical and Supervisory Section of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers and the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades have strong reservations. The Trades Union Congress (TUC), for its part, issued a policy statement for its 1973 non-manual workers' conference drawing attention to possible difficulties where flexible hours were not applied to the workforce as a whole, but only to office workers, and recommended that each case should be assessed in the light of the employer's motives in introducing the system.
In a limited number of cases the experiment broke down for lack of adequate preparation, or because it was too hastily introduced.
By and large, the flexible hours system appears to be spreading fairly rapidly in the United Kingdom. Given the range of organisations in which the system has been introduced, the structure of the British labour force and the rapid growth of the service sector, flexible hours may well become a feature of employment for up to 50 per cent of all workers.
In France, a number of interesting developments have taken place in this sphere in recent years, not the least of which was the passing of an Act dated 27 December 1973 on working conditions. Section 16 of the Act provides that, at the request of certain categories of workers, employers are authorised to depart from the rule of common working hours and to adopt "individual" hours. The scope of the law is very wide, covering industrial, commercial and agricultural undertakings, government offices, the liberal professions, non-profit-making organisations, trade unions and all types of associations. Three conditions are stipulated for the introduction of individualised hours: a request by the personnel; absence of any opposition by members of the works committee or personnel representatives; and notification of the labour inspector.
Some years earlier - in January 1972 - a working party, set up at the request of the Prime Minister, had performed a useful service in identifying and clarifying a number of problems under discussion, including an analysis of various concepts in use ("individualised", "personalised", "mobile", "free", and "variable" working hours).1
A second working party was set up subsequently to consider the main problems that had emerged in the course of experimentation with the system. The group's report,2 found that the system was generally appreciated by employees but gave a warning that it could lead to an excessively long work day detrimental to workers' health and safety. It recommended that the working day should in no case be allowed to exceed 10 hours and that the lunch break should be at least 45 minutes. It pointed out that, as stipulated in the 1973 Act, flexible hours must only be introduced at the request of the personnel and with the agreement of the works committee. It also stressed the importance of explaining the system fully to those affected, and of making a thorough joint study of the detailed implementation of the system with the accredited representatives of the personnel.3
So far, the trade unions appear to view the system with some suspicion, feeling that there is a risk in some cases of the workers being losers from the system. During the meetings of the second working party, representatives of the major unions (CFTC, CGT, CFDT) made it very clear that flexible hours must not be introduced as a means of abolishing existing privileges or of diverting attention from more important matters such as working hours and other conditions, purchasing power, job security, transport facilities, etc. They also insisted that the introduction of flexible hours must not interfere with the right to organise and that union meetings must take place during core time and not during the flexible periods.1
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