Flexible Work

Approaching the Age of Flexibility in Good Health

The flexibilisation of work is one of the most pronounced consequences of the structural changes in the world of work.

The increasing globalisation of the markets calls for flexible strategies on the part of companies. They must continuously improve their ranges of products and services, be able to react quickly to fluctuating demands on the markets and constantly adapt their decisions on locations to new political and economic circumstances.

As regards the employees, these changes are mainly reflected in the form of flexible working hours and new forms of employment. This leads to opportunities, on the one hand, but also to risks to health and the quality of employment, on the other.

Even though the USA is regarded as an exporter of flexible forms of work, many companies in Europe have also adopted an innovative change process in the last 10 years. Their flexibilisation strategies are aimed at both quantity and quality in that, for example, working time and the place of work, staff deployment and forms of contract are handled flexibly or job rotation, job enlargement and job enrichment ensure that human resources are used optimally.

Depending on the starting situation and handling, the various strategies involve different pros and cons, and costs and benefits, which is assessed in very different ways by the companies and the employees.

In view of the different interests involved, sustainability and success (sustainable flexibility) can only be ensured in this connection if the adaptability of the company is shaped together with committed and healthy employees.

Practical Consequences

The exchange of experience in the EfH network resulted in the following conclusions and recommendations for practice:

  • Social security and flexibilisation

    Dominating the debate about economic, social and corporate policies is the question of how working conditions can be designed so that company and national economies remain competitive while maintaining the quality of social development. The goal is to achieve a productive balance that promotes business growth and employment and at the same time permits a decent quality of life for individuals.

    The overall social and economic consequences of new forms of employment - such as fixed-term contracts, temporary agency and seasonal work, types of self-employment and side-line employment - are difficult to assess at this stage. Changes in labour law and the protective regulations of a country’s social security systems play a vital role in this respect.

    Trade unions argue that a large number of flexibilisation measures implemented so far represent a shift in risk away from the company to the individual in the labour market. They also question the supposed employment benefits of such measures.

    Supporters of flexibilisation with social protection, however, are convinced that labour markets must become more flexible if employment and competitiveness are to be safeguarded - as long as social security provisions are developed to take account of the new working patterns. 

  • "Flexicurity" - More social security for flexible employment

    The present labour market strategy of European Communities is based on the conviction that social security and competitiveness can be further developed in a balanced manner and should not be regarded as conflicting interests. The core of this approach is the view that economic growth, increased employment and the maintenance of income levels can and should be achieved through increased productivity and not by cutting wages to improve profitability.

    The so-called "flexicurity strategy" involves the creation of transitional labour markets, working time policies which help to secure jobs and the promotion of life-long learning.

    Transitional labour markets are characterised by a regular flow between employment and unemployment. They are safeguarded by a collective agreement or by law and generally combine low and unsteady incomes with social transfers. Part-time employment, sabbaticals or transfer companies are examples of this approach.

    Job-securing working time policy – such as in the concept of the "breathing factory" - relies on internal instead of external flexibility: in the event of fluctuations in demand for products or services, it is not the number of employees that is reduced but their working time. This approach minimises the risk of dismissal but can result in problems associated with lower income. Life-long learning is important to an individual’s employability. This can be improved by active labour market policy tools, such as further training or retraining.

  • Employee Health - a seismograph of the flexible world of work

    If health, in its widest sense, includes an individual's ability to shape his/her personal development within external requirements, it becomes an important way of evaluating the consequences of the flexible working world.

    The crucial factor is an individual’s confidence in his/her ability to adapt to changes and face up to new challenges. This requires a corporate culture which promotes responsibility, self-esteem and mutual support and which, at the same time, assumes some responsibility for the down-side of flexibilisation.

    The so-called atypical employment contracts (part-time employment, fixed-term contracts, temporary agency and seasonal work, side-line employment, forms of self-employment) are primarily pursued by female workers. This, if combined with other social considerations such as low family status, child-rearing and possibly a low household income - can give rise to the 'precarious household.' This can result in a rise in child poverty, impairment of the psychosocial and cognitive development of major sections of the population at an early age and a consequent reduction in qualification levels – an impact which can last for generations.

  • Flexibilisation should be geared to business objectives

    Internal and external flexibilisation is not an end in itself, but geared to the business objectives of the companies. It cannot be successful without the acceptance of management and workers. Moreover, it is generally not sufficient to pursue flexibilisation in isolation as a single measure or single programme; only complex approaches which combine different forms of flexibilisation are effective and sustainable. Only then, according to the experience of the EfH enterprises, can any negative consequences of the working practices be limited or reduced.

  • How can companies combat the negative consequences of flexibilisation?

    Working-time flexibilisation and the use of flexible employment contracts are now part of the standard tools of HR management in most major companies. Even though most new practices focus on the economic interests of the company, the interests of the workers should be taken into account at every possible opportunity, according to the experiences of EfH companies, particularly in the way working time is planned.

    Workers can cope better with increasing flexibility expectations if the work organisation corporate culture recognise the contribution of the employee to company success.

"Functional flexibility seems to provide opportunities for sustainable employment. Companies that try to increase this type of flexibility are characterised by human resource management and production structures which are usually positively associated with sustainability. At the level of the employees, functional flexibility is positively related to working conditions, such as skill development, active jobs and involvement in decision-making and is also positively related to long-term skill retention."

Dr. Anneke Goudswaard, TNO Work and Employment, The Netherlands

(Keynote Speaker, EfH Business Meeting "Flexible Work", May 24 - 25, 2004, Schaan, Liechtenstein)

to top    print page