Flexibility In The Workplace Management Essay

In the 21st century we are living in, the changes in the political, economic, social and technological context in which organisations function demand flexibility. Flexibility in the workplace is regarded as an important central feature of contemporary organisations. Due to the constant changes in the corporate world, organisations that lack flexibility among their working environment are simply at high risk of failure. International and domestic competitive pressures; major financial events and Technological changes have all influenced companies to search for greater flexibility and productivity, not to mention strategies focused on modernization and awareness to changing market conditions (Gilgeous 1997:90-96). Developing a workplace flexibility strategy is an essential part in an organisation, because when such strategies are effective, it results in increased productivity, job satisfaction, an increase in employee well-being, and ultimately leads to higher profitability and success in the competitive market (Gilgeous 1997:90-96).

Flexibility has a very influential part when developing workplace strategies and achieving the long-term goals of a company (Torrington et al. 2007). The purpose and aim of the essay is to explore and describe the various definitions of flexibility in the workplace; provide more emphasis on how workplace flexibility improves recruitment and retention; explore the theory on the Atkinson firm model; the benefits workplace flexibility offers for both the employer and employee, and how it ultimately contributes to the success of any business. Based on this analysis, the essay will illustrate the importance of developing a flexible workplace, not just as a benefit to the employees but the entire organisation as a whole, which includes the senior managers; shareholders and directors. The essay scope will cover a literature review on workplace flexibility, the Atkinson’s model will be discussed; examples of various companies using workplace flexibility will be examined, and recommendations will be made as a conclusion at the end of the essay.

Literature Review

Today’s companies constantly have to cope with the ever changing customer wants and needs, the rapid development of technology and the fierce competition within concentrated or niche markets. Organisations therefore need to implement flexibility in their workplace if they are to survive and operate effectively. Thus, they should attain the ability to change what and how they do things in a much faster/quicker way. This essay will review on the description of flexibility, the various forms of workplace flexibility, examine the Atkinson Model of flexibility and its arguments, as well as the benefits flexibility has on the achievement of organisational success.

Definition and description of flexibility in the workplace

The various ways in which work is programmed in an organisation is also highly affected by flexibility. Changes are constantly taking place in organisations; therefore it is also essential for change to take place in the way work is completed. Workplace flexibility is defines as “the ability of workers to make choices influencing when, where, and for how long they engage in work related tasks” (Hill et al. 2008:152).

Flexibility is an approach used to define how and when work is carried out and how careers are organised and structured. It is a critical factor to overall workplace effectiveness (Hill et al. 2008). Firms make use of it as a means for improving recruitment and retention, for managing workload, and for responding to employee diversity (Hill et al. 2008). Over the past decade, research has revealed that flexibility can also increase employee engagement and diversity, as well as job satisfaction and minimize the level of stress in the workplace (Torrington, Hall & Taylor 2007). The above definitions clearly illustrate the major role that flexibility plays in an organisation, but exactly how strong is its influence when it comes to recruitment and retention?

One of the main aims of recruitment is to find a various number of suitable candidates for unoccupied posts (Nieman & Bennett 2006). Recent studies have shown that nowadays, the majority of highly qualified candidates look forward to working for organisations that can highly effect changes in the process components of a business, such as resources, inputs, activities and information (Nieman & Bennett 2006). Such organisations are considered as flexible, and have the advantage of adapting much easily to constant and unforeseen changes in the business environment.

Not only does workplace flexibility attract suitable candidates but employers also have the responsibility of doing everything in their power to make the workplace as pleasant as possible for the employees. Employers must therefore look after their employee’s interests and create opportunities for them to grow and develop (Nieman & Bennett 2006:251). Working in a company where the activities and working hours are flexible and where employees manage to find ways in balancing work and personal life is beneficial to all (Nieman & Bennett 2006). Therefore, employees in such companies are most likely to be settled in their positions and duties; have a higher chance of increased work performance and improving retention in the company (Nieman & Bennett 2006)). In a flexible business environment, employees become more innovative and responsive to the client’s needs, and their constant changing demands (Hill et al. 2008). Studies have shown that having workplace flexibility makes any business become less vulnerable from internal and external threats. Another major key factor in a business’ success is the investment in technology and software that makes it even easier for any business to adapt to being flexible (Nieman & Bennett 2006). Technological advancement has been very influential in the running of businesses, it has made the carrying out of tasks/activities/administration and financial work more efficient and effective and less time consuming with easier access to the internet.

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According to Dickens (2005), there are many varieties of flexible working options. They consist of different working patterns such as:

Flexible working time: In this pattern the employees total working hours are at different times during a day, e.g. the employee decides when he/she should pitch for work in the mornings, or leave in the afternoon. As long as the employee works for the amount of time stated in the contract.

Flexible working hours: In this pattern an employees’ total number of hours is diverse.

Flexible career: This pattern involves an employee taking leave in their career, or taking an absence from the company, but still remains an employee at the particular company, e.g. worker who take a break from work without pay for personal reasons, but carry on the same employment when they return.

Flexible Place: In this pattern employees are permitted to work in other places other than their offices, depending on the job task.

Table 1 shows the various forms of workplace flexibility. Table 1 (Reilly 2001:28)

Type

Definition / Aims

Examples

Functional

Permits firms to allocate labour across traditional functional boundaries

Multi-skilling, cross-functional working, task flexibility

Numerical

Permits variation in the number of employees or workers used

Temporary, seasonal, casual, agency, fixed-term workers, outsourcing

Temporal

Represents variability of working hours, either in a regular or irregular pattern

Part-time, annual hours, shift, overtime, voluntary reduced hours, flexitime, zero hours arrangements

Locational

Involves using employees outside the normal workplace, including transfer of work to back offices

Home, mobile, tele/outworkers

Financial

Permits pay bills to rise and fall in line with corporate performance

Gainsharing, profit sharing, variable executive pay schemes, wage cutting deals

The Atkinson flexible firm model

Researchers have also given huge emphasis on models of flexibility. The most common one is the Atkinson’s flexible firm model. Many of the forms of flexibility illustrated above in Table 1 can be identified with the flexible firm model developed by John Atkinson in 1984. Atkinson’s model is important in combining the different forms and dimensions of flexibility, as well as contributing to developing a structure for understanding workplace flexibility (Atkinson 1984).

The flexible firm model is a mixture of functional, numerical and financial flexibility by working with a workforce that consists of core and peripheral workers, as well as a number of other ‘outside’ workers who are not a part of the organisation but provide their basic or essential services (Reilly 2001).

Atkinson identifies functional, numerical and financial flexibility as the major types of flexibilities that succeeding companies should seek for (Atkinson, 1984). Functional flexibility has to do with the ability of employees to cope with different tasks and moves between jobs, e.g. multi-skilling (Dilworth 1996). This approach enables employers to match changing workloads, production methods and technology. Numerical flexibility involves having the power to change the number of employees or the number of hours that each employee has worked, in reaction to the changes in demand (Dilworth 1996). Financial flexibility involves a company’s ability to adjust employment costs in response to supply and demand in the external labour market. The objectives of functional and numerical flexibility are made easier thanks to financial flexibility (Dilworth 1996). Also, it involves a move away from standardised pay structures. It is directed towards more individualised systems dependent upon performance.

Furthermore, Atkinson had proposed an ideal model of the fully flexible organisation (Atkinson 1984). An organisation of such kind would hire numerically permanent core group of workers. The core group would include full-time workers who would execute out the key activities and duties in the company (Atkinson 1984). Neighbouring the core employees are the peripheral groups. There are two types of peripheral groups. The first type of peripheral groups consists of workers that have permanent contracts, but have fewer career opportunities and less employment security. The second type of peripheral groups consists of part-time employees, job sharers, or workers that are on short-term contracts (Atkinson 1984).

Arguments against the Atkinson Model

Although both core and peripheral workers form part of an organisation, they are somehow both distinguished and treated differently. Bryson (1999) has argued that the core employees are more exposed to training and development, and benefit more through their involvement and participation in the various group tasks and activities done in the workplace. The peripheral employees however, seem to have fewer benefits offered in the job, making this an unfair treatment (Bryson 1999). During a country’s recession period, the peripheral workers are the ones at higher risk of being retrenched or dismissed from the workplace, because the majority of them have short-term contracts and less opportunities whereas the core employees have a more secure position based on their full-time contracts in the company, states Bryson (1999). So how can organisations use the flexible firm model for better organisational structure? Interesting enough, what is also highly emphasized about the Atkinson’s model is that the flexible firm model itself is not exactly the way for structuring all organisations; it is just a model that can help somehow. Organisations can therefore use other means of organisational structure that have been more highly effective in the past.

Over the years, managers have had different translations and understanding of the core and peripheral group concept. They have highly criticised the attempts of associating the core with trained, flexible workers, and the periphery with untrained, inflexible workers (Pollert, 1988; Legge 1995). They have stated that such attempts are simply too basic, rather than being more sophisticated. Besides, there is another major complication of dual status. Dual status takes place when an employee finds himself being both a core and peripheral worker, depending on the circumstances at the workplace. Recently, there has been an emerging contradiction in certain organisations that temporary work is often more durable than permanent work, and this contradiction is due to the ambiguity inherent in the contrast between core and peripheral workers. (Pollert, 1988; Legge 1995).

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The link between the core and periphery sectors is more complicated than it is generally assumed by the core-periphery model (Kallenberg 2001). It is often assumed that employees in the periphery are utilized to protect the core group, but this is not the case. Furthermore, both the core and periphery groups may be linked in most ways than others, especially when it comes to recruitment and selection of temporary agency staff for fixed or full-time positions (Kallenberg 2001).

In addition, whether or not the flexible firm model identifies both the core and periphery labour force as a separate employment category is questionable. Some writers have found that the hiring of temporary workers is more likely to happen where demand is predictable. Also, overtime is the ideal method or way to acquire temporary flexibility where demand is unpredictable. Thus, standard workers are not being substituted by temporary workers (Pollert 1988; Legge, 1995; Buultjens and Luckie, 1997). It is highly ironic how recent evidence has suggested that some managers and trade unionists view part-time employees as marginal, because surprisingly, temporary employees and part-time employees are also each treated as separate labour force segments (Pollert, 1988; Legge, 1995; Buultjens and Luckie, 1997). Other studies have illustrated that temporary work is often shown to be a screening procedure used to hire permanent staff instead of a strategy to increase a periphery. On top of that, there is also evidence that the main reason for utilizing self-employed workers is for specialist skills which are unavailable in the core work force. It is not to provide numerical flexibility (Pollert, 1988; Legge, 1995; Buultjens and Luckie, 1997).

In summary, experiential research continuously comes to the conclusion that the flexible firm model itself is not enough to explain the changes that have constantly taken place and been observed in organisations (Proctor et al. 1994). Researches who have argued against the Atkinson’s model, argued seem to agree that in a majority of cases, the theoretical contrast made between core and peripheral workers basically seems to be unproven (Proctor et al. 1994).

Benefits of Workplace Flexibility

The pathway to future success for most organisations is having a flexible workplace. However, is having a flexible working environment more of an advantage than a disadvantage, especially in today’s business world and due to the constant development of advanced technology? Exactly how can both employers and employees benefit from having a flexible workplace? According to Dickens (2005), the benefits/advantages for the employees include:

– An improvement in productivity: Working in a flexible environment helps the majority of employers as well as employees to work smarter and increase their work practices to be more effective and productive.

– An improvement in work-life balance: In today’s large companies, many employees are striving to meet both work and personal commitments. Workplace flexibility somehow improves quality and effectiveness both in their work and personal lives.

– Increases employee job satisfaction: Employees become more confident and motivated to perform in their highest capacity, as they are more flexible to meet their duties and are driven to work harder and more creatively.

– A flexible workplace environment shows that the needs of the workers are taken into consideration, and this in turn increases their loyalty, trust and respect towards their employers.

Dickens (2005) states that for the employer, the benefits include the following:

– Having a flexible workplace increases the retention of the permanent employees; organisations get to retain experienced and valuable employees. They become less likely to leave or search for work elsewhere.

– Minimizes absence and turnover: A flexible workplace decreases the stress level of employees, stress that is often caused by trying to meet their job and family commitments at the same time. Flexibility enables them to develop a greater sense of well-being, and look forward to going to work each day.

– With workplace flexibility, organisational resources are matched more closely with customer/product demand.

– A flexible workplace attracts highly qualified expertise that become keen to share their experience and knowledge in the company.

– A flexible workplace results to greater profits and a higher market share, due to the hard work and dedication of its employees.

– Employers get to save in recruitment costs, and minimize the fixed labour costs, such as office space, fuel, etc.

Of course, to every advantage, there is always a disadvantage. The major disadvantages of flexible patterns are the following (Stredwick & Ellis 2005):

– Often, there is a need of a specialized management team for the flexible workforce in organisations.

– Training costs often increase when implementing workplace flexibility.

-There is an increase in complexity in administration.

– Communication also gets affected; it tends to become difficult because of the segmentation of the workforce.

– Workplace flexibility often creates tension amongst the diverse categories of workers due to uneven treatment in terms of pay.

– Workplace flexibility increases job insecurity, especially for the part-time workers.

The above information has somehow shown the importance workplace flexibility, but exactly how convinced can we be, to prove that flexibility is a major comparative advantage that a company should have? To further prove that the advantages of workplace flexibility far outweighs the disadvantages, studies on some of the many successful companies who have implemented flexibility in their workplace will briefly be examined below. Since the early 90’s, many of these studies have proven that giving employees flexibility and absolute control over their schedule increases productivity.

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To start, a relevant example is of the International Business Machines (IBM) Company (Millmore et al. 2007:173). IBM is regarded as one the world’s number one provider of computer products and services. It is ranked in the world’s top ten companies by Fortune (the leading practitioner business journal); it ranks among the leaders in almost every market in which it competes. The company manufactures mainframes and servers, storage systems, and peripherals. Its services rendered are the largest in the world, especially due to being the second largest providers of both software and semiconductors. However, the sector in which IBM has had difficulties in conquering in recent years is its PC division. In previous eras such as the 1970s and 1980s, IBM was the only company leading the personal computer (PC) market (Millmore et al., 2007:173). The company was highly successful in acquiring huge profits, and hiring thousands of workers across the world, that it became recognised by its senior managers and industry analysts as ‘big blue’. The observation was that it had obtained such a large market share that its future operating success was never in questions or doubts regardless of the emerging rivals (Millmore et al., 2007:173). This may have somehow formed a false sense of confidence for the senior executives at IBM who were in charge of the PC division. The false confidence appeared to have resulted in complacency with regard to strategic decision-making and necessary changes to the corporate structure required to respond to the dramatic changes taking place in the global PC market. New competitive rivals started emerging in the market, such as Siemens, Fujitsu, Apple, Compaq and Dell. Dell is now the world’s top PC manufacturer. Customers were being offered by these organisations competitively more priced products, and their organisational structures were more open to both their employees and customer needs. Ultimately, IBM’s share of the PC market declined throughout the years of the 1990s. Eventually senior managers and researchers at IMB had to redo an intense research on the strategies emerging companies are using to captivate and sustain a competitive edge in the PC market (Millmore et al., 2007:173). In 2001, it was found that the employees who utilize flexible scheduling seem to out-perform those who work traditional hours by a figure of 30%. This research was done by the UK industrial society (Making the business case for flexibility 2006). In the same year, IBM researchers found that workers who had flexibility in their workplace have a higher productivity, increased commitment and loyalty, recruit and retain valuable employees, were able to work for longer hours without adding stress to their work-life balance and due to the global recession, managers were able to cut down on costs and worry less about profit. By implementing the flexibility strategy, senior managers at IBM were able to change the company and its employees around. The work performance had increases significantly and as a result to this so have its profitability in its PC market. Flexibility has managed to transform the company completely, from a traditional, rigid one to a dynamic and flexible one that can now easily adapt to the ever changing market and trends (Millmore et al., 2007:173).

Six different businesses were studied and examined by Boston College (2000), and their results were that the use of flexible scheduling arrangements has tremendously had a constructive impact on the productivity and work performance of the employees, not to mention the quality and retention in each business.

In 2003, a study conducted by UK software-maker Corel, revealed that companies could increase profitability by discovering when workers felt they were most creative, and permitting them to structure their own day, giving them more flexibility and control .

In 2005, a study done by the Corporate Voices/WFD consulting revealed that in every organisation, flexibility did not only have a positive impact in the financial performance and productivity, but as well as engagement and a positive morale too. Even the slightest measure produced higher levels.

The study conducted at Boston College (2000) proved that the main source of lost revenue in any company is turnover. Therefore flexibility minimizes costs by retaining workers, or rather its valuable expertise.

Conclusion

What makes workplace flexibility such an unstoppable trend in organisations is that it is now implemented in each entrepreneurial activity worldwide. It is a master tool for having a strong workforce, it should definitely be recommended to all senior managers of organisations worldwide who are still not familiar with the concept to familiarize themselves and get gain as much knowledge as possible start implementing it in their workplace. Although there are still some ‘traditional’ companies who have enjoyed corporate success for many years without having workplace flexibility, the reality is still based on the fact that time has changed over the past decades, the corporate world and industries have changed; and we are now seeing how the spread of flexible working is changing the nature of entrepreneurship, which in turn, gives more power to the global economy and aids us in determining how we want to live our lives and work. I believe it could hardly be clearer that developing a more flexible, supportive workplace is a competitive advantage for any company and a key to organisational success. In the second following essay, ways and reasons of implementing workplace flexibility will be explored through in-depth details.


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