A FLEXIBLE APPROACH TO PRODUCTIVITY: According to new research, PR flexible working practices are still in their infancy. Maja Pawinska reports

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

business.



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

about it.'



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

senior management.'



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

employees.



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

instance.



'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

industry.



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.'



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