Employee experience | Productivity and the flexible workforce - Striking the Right Balance

Productivity and the flexible workforce - Striking the Right Balance

By Neville Henderson - Crown Workforce Management, Senior Consultant

The world of work has undergone a sea-change in the past few years. Businesses want more flexibility and productivity to suit them. At the same time, some people want predictability and others want to decide when and where they work for themselves.

There was a time when people went to school, some went on to university, and when they managed to find employment they remained with their employer for many years. Some got promotions and stayed until receiving their gold watch and pension. This concept of a job for life now seems an anachronism. It is questionable whether in the future whether jobs as we know them will exist at all. Zero-hours contracts, part-time work, agency work, home working and the so-called ‘gig economy’ are blurring the definition. Recent court rulings have begun to understand these definitions, but we are still a long way off.

With the availability of software platforms and the upsurge of ‘big data’ artificial intelligence can not only predict demand but also verify it in real-time to show any productivity potential. By creating a flexible workforce, of whatever type of ‘worker’, businesses aim to better match this requirement.

This changing understanding of the nature of work led to Matthew Taylor, a onetime advisor to Tony Blair being asked by Theresa May’s government to look at the many, often ethical, issues surrounding these concepts. He responded with the ‘Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices’ which emphasised the belief that: 

“Good Work is shaped by working practices that benefit employees through good reward schemes and terms and conditions, having a secure position, better training and development, good communication and ways of working that support task discretion and involve employees in securing business improvements.”

Since then, Taylor has emphasised the need for 'good work' in a crisis saying:

"There will be more people who are desperate to work on whatever terms and there will be more businesses who are willing to cut corners in order to survive"

Businesses now have a better understanding of their activities, processes, material requirements and ultimately their people presence requirements. Initially this information was used to plan overtime and other ways to flex people at work. However, to further improve productivity it has meant more people are being driven into the more unstable ways of working. As businesses match fluctuating demand it begs the question whether it is better to. a) match this flexibility as much as possible from a full managed internal source, with more control over personnel, training and development (perhaps with some inbuilt inefficiencies) or b) precisely match the requirement from an external source whether they are called workers, self-employed, temporaries or agency etc.

The answer will depend on the specifics of the business, the work and the company ethos. What is your view on Good Work?

All forms of flexibility can be of benefit to workers as well as employers. Many freelancers or service providers are happy to sit on the books of a number of employers if that means they can choose the work and hours that suit them best. However, a large number of workers are in the situation where they have low pay, are required to have high work flexibility, and essentially have little power or voice. It is this group that needs to be addressed carefully to ensure fairness.

The Taylor Review tried to do this with a “right to request regular hours and to have that request taken seriously”, but perhaps this is a too simplistic approach. It could be argued that we should aim for regular payments rather than hours to fit a flexible demand profile. With a banked hours scheme, for example, we perhaps could have flexibility and a steady income from a satisfied fully trained loyal workforce.

So how do we strike the balance?

There may be a short term benefit to the employee if we tip the balance to increase their freedom to work when and where they like – however if this is tipped too far, then this may have detrimental effects to the viability of the business. Tipping it the other way, may have just as many implications on the skill base and reliability of the workforce. The Taylor Review and the government’s response contained a great deal of valid comment, however, it now seems something from a different age. A new work status or simply banning zero hours contracts will not balance the flexibility scales. Matching the workforce to the demand for work is an excellent idea but for it to be truly effective, we must align this business productivity with skills and incentives, and treat people with basic respect.

In summary, flexibility must benefit both the business and the worker. The balance must be maintained between flexibility, a decent reward, security for the employee and long term strategic planning for the employer

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