The lessons learnt
Considerable progress has been made both in the structure of the new system and in the way in which it is operated. It may therefore be useful to consider what lessons may be drawn from the experiments made to date.
A preliminary point that must be made is that, although flexible hours make it easier for individuals and groups (e.g. members of a shift) to arrange their working and non-working life and can be designed in various - often highly ingenious - ways, there are nevertheless very definite limitations. The freedom of choice that the system provides is not, and cannot be, total.
A number of alternative schemes have been mentioned earlier. As regards the justification for introducing flexible hours, the evidence from current schemes is that flexible hours are a definite step forward in human progress and that the participants greatly appreciate their new sense of freedom. In certain instances, the introduction of the system merely endorses existing practices.2
It is clear that, despite its numerous variants, the system cannot be applied indiscriminately in all sectors and services. Cases in point are continuous or semi-continuous operations, assembly-line work, i.e. any work which must be broken down into numerous, small operations or where the products cannot, because of their size or weight, be stored during the interval between one shift and another.
On the other hand, in the services sector and especially in government offices, the introduction of flexible hours appears to present no difficulties. Indeed, the system appears particularly well suited to certain sectors (e.g. banking and insurance), as well as to certain types of occupation, such as accountancy, graphics, data processing and general office work.
Clearly, the shorter the working hours established by law or collective agreement the more favourable will be the reaction to a flexible schedule. In certain cases, where the law is so specific that it would interfere with the operation of flexible hours (for example, by preventing the debit hours from being set off against credit hours and compensation for additional hours in the form of time off) amendment of the law may be needed.
Reservations about this mode of scheduling working time still exist in various quarters. Some are afraid that it will create chaos or they simply object to innovations. Others, particularly supervisory staff, regard it as a threat to their position and authority. Some workers and unions fear that the new system, however attractive, may be used to avoid dealing with serious problems, or as an alternative to acceptance of other more important demands. There are also fears that flexible hours may interfere with union rights. Other problems are the maximum length of the working day, the minimum length of the lunch break, maximum hours for young workers, the spread of the working day, arrangements for credit and debit hours, etc.
Time recording is another sensitive issue. Various methods are used: attendance sheets, time-clocks, individual meters and systems using data-processing techniques. Experience to date shows that there are objections to the use of time-clocks, and that individual meters are the most acceptable.1
As far as we know, once flexible hours have been introduced, no one has asked for a return to fixed hours. Nevertheless, if the system is to succeed, certain preliminary steps have to be taken, the first of which is to inform and reach agreement with staff representatives on the procedures to be adopted for applying the proposed system. It is also advisable to proceed by stages, starting with trial periods.
With the development of the system, a number of problems of varying Importance have come to light, some of them peculiar to particular undertakings: for example, choice of rest days and holidays, combination of statutory holidays with weekends and arrangements for the transport of employees by special buses. These problems are under study and in some cases have already been resolved.
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