What's your view on people in your organisation working partly from
home, or getting in early so they can leave early to pick the kids up
from school? Do you assume that they are slacking 'part-timers' who are
leaving the poor sods in the office to do the real work? Or, like a
growing number of employers and employees, do you view their flexibility
as being healthy and having tangible business benefits?
A study by the Industrial Society and flexible working consultancy The
Resource Connection in January found that executives across a number of
industry sectors who shunned the nine-to-five slog for more flexible
working hours far outperformed their colleagues. In fact, seven out of
ten had higher output and achievements, and also scored higher on
resilience, leadership, problem solving and commitment.
On paper, flexible working - whether tele-working, job-sharing, or
working flexible hours - sounds like a great option for the modern
Everyone's talking about getting the work/life balance right, and since
public relations likes to see itself as a dynamic industry, surely it
must be in the vanguard of the move towards flexible working? However,
according to research carried out by independent company Ipsos RSL for
Edelman, the PR industry likes the idea very much - but in most cases,
it isn't walking the talk.
The Flexible Working study involved interviews with 50 PR consultancy
staff, and 50 interviews with staff from dot.coms, from administrators
to senior managers in both sectors. According to Edelman UK and Ireland
MD John Mahony, dot.coms were chosen to act as a sort of benchmark for
the PR industry, since the ethos of dot.coms is often flexible from
their birth: 'A lot of flexible working practices have grown out of the
culture of dot.coms. They live flexible working, they don't just talk
Edelman carried out the study as part of a holistic look at how
improving its own working environment could help with the industry-wide
problem of attracting and retaining good staff. 'There is a shortage of
good people and if you create a work environment that will recruit
senior talent who have opted out because of the working environment then
it's a win-win situation. There are also issues about marriage and
children, especially for women, and we are a global company so we want
people to work in an international environment, which by its nature has
to be flexible,' says Mahony.
On the face of it, the finding that 80 per cent of those surveyed in the
PR industry - matched by those in dot.coms - felt that flexible working
is important to them is encouraging.
Beyond this, though, there are some anomolies and inconsistencies,
mainly in terms of the different perceptions of men and women, and
senior management and those lower down in an organisation.
For instance, 81 per cent of men said they had a flexible arrangement
with their employer, but only 52 per cent of women did. Somewhat ironic
considering that it is women who tend to be the ones pushing for
flexible working. An even wider gap appears between senior managers, 86
per cent of whom say they have a flexible working arrangement, compared
with just 47 per cent of junior managers.
These enormous anomalies aren't any surprise, though, when you discover
that an overwhelming 85 per cent of those in the PR industry say there
is no specific working policy for flexible working at their company.
'It can't be a nebulous reward,' says Mahony. 'People need to know that
there is a clear policy, which underpins the employer's commitment, and
isn't conditional. There is a feeling that flexibility only exists for
In fact, the idea that flexible working is a perk reserved for the top
boys and girls was one of the areas where the remarks from the PR
interviewees differed most strongly from those in dot.coms. Forty per
cent of PR respondents said they believed that flexible working was
aimed at senior management, compared to just six per cent of dot.com
This is despite the fact that employees at all levels can clearly see
the business benefits of flexible working. Around half of the
respondents said they thought it would improve business processes and
lead to better quality work, and 20 per cent said staff would be happier
and more motivated.
Only six per cent said they thought their employers would consider that
there were benefits to flexible working, though, and 30 per cent of
practitioners felt that their industry was not really embracing the
concept of flexible working.
Other clear benefits to flexible working, such as improving morale,
reducing sloppy work and sickness, were also picked up by the sample.
And as the PR industry moves towards needing to act on a 24/7 basis with
clients and media around the world, many felt that flexible working
could really help by effectively extending a company's working hours,
and therefore extending the opportunity to do business.
The survey results only refer to the consultancy community, but IPR
director-general Colin Farrington says flexible working practices are as
widely welcomed by in-house practitioners: 'I doubt there is much
difference between in-house practitioners and those in consultancy as
far as flexible working is concerned, although there may be bigger teams
in-house in the private sector to support flexible working, whereas
those in agencies are at the beck and call of the client. In-house
teams, whether in the private or public sectors, are working harder then
ever and their demands are increasing all the time - it's not just those
in agencies who are stressed and need these benefits.'
The survey also highlights some of the main problems that respondents
thought could arise out of having flexible working policies. The biggest
issue is the possibility of inadequate staffing during some hours, says
Mahony: 'This could be a problem if companies are not rigorous in terms
of assessing the resources needed in flexible working. It's not about
extra staff, it's about planning and rostering. Employers need to weigh
up the odds between spending time doing that, and recruiting.'
Keeping employee communications up is another potential pitfall, with 31
per cent of respondents expressing concern about an organisation's
ability to keep internal communications up with tele-workers, for
'There is a challenge in being flexible but still keeping the culture of
the company, and making sure that people are involved in social
occasions,' says Mahony. He adds that this is one area where flexible
workers have a responsibility themselves to make sure they are kept in
the loop and still considered to be a core part of the team.
There's another big gap between men and women in terms of how they think
their company has reacted to the idea of flexible working: 77 per cent
of men say their company has reacted well, compared with only half of
the women respondents.
There is an even more startling gap between the senior managers who said
they thought flexible working was important to their sector as a whole
(42 per cent) and the administrative staff actually doing the work -
only eight per cent said they thought it was important to the
One troubling finding from the survey was that the perception that
people with children, especially women, benefitted most from
flexibility, and men and single people benefitted least. The danger
being that unless flexible working is perceived to be an option open,
and of benefit, to all employees, then resentment can build up: if the
only person in the office who ever leaves early is the sole mother, then
this could be viewed as positive discrimination.
Given the apparent lack of real policy on flexible working within the
agency sector, it comes as little surprise that nearly all respondents
felt the Government's policy on flexible working was unclear. This is a
fair comment because beyond working time legislation and regulations
governing maternity and paternity leave, there is very little
legislation that touches on new working practices.
But given the current recruitment and retention crisis hitting the
industry, a proper policy is something that most consultancies and
in-house departments need to consider. At Edelman, Mahony says it's a
great opportunity for the industry to move fast on the issue: 'It needs
to be kick-started.
The industry could move forward without waiting for legislation. The
ones who are winning are the ones embarking on this journey.'
BRITISH GAS - JOB SHARING
Among the client companies which are embracing flexible working is
British Gas. PR officer Suzanne Wright, based in the Leeds office, was
working full-time until the birth of her first child four years ago.
After maternity leave, she found she wanted to spend time with her
daughter, but was reluctant to leave behind the career she had built up.
Another colleague, Bridget Batty, was in the same position and they came
up with the idea of job sharing.
'It was a good chance to have the best of both worlds, and as a
family-friendly employer British Gas has supported us,' says Wright, who
has just returned to job sharing after having her second child.
Wright says she has seen a steady increase in the number of job shares
at the company over the past couple of years, and says the response from
media contacts has been positive.
The key to the success of the job share, she believes, is that she and
Batty work very well together, in the same kind of way, and they
communicate well. 'We try and provide a consistent approach, and the
communication is vital,' says Wright.
Batty works Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning, and Wright works
Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The two PROs live near each other and
car share on Wednesdays to give them a chance to catch up on the
progress of various projects - and the office gossip.
Wright adds that there is no question that the two job-sharers are
treated differently by colleagues or their employer: 'I do feel
involved. We are treated exactly the same as full-time employees, and
there is a good support network. Team meetings and briefings fit around
different people's work patterns, and because of the overlap on
Wednesday we can all do them together.'
Wright says she can see no downsides to her arrangement, and feels no
need to go back to full-time work until her children are older: 'I'm
enjoying it all. I have a lot of friends in marketing and journalism and
they are envious of my position.'