ANALYSIS: PR employers face up to new workers' rights

New family-friendly working regulations that came into force last week spell change for PR employers. Alastair Ray explains why

Was your workplace a kinder and gentler place this week? Last Sunday, new regulations on employee rights came into force designed to help staff balance the demands of their jobs and their families.

The changes include the right to request flexible working patterns, extended maternity leave and increased pay, a new statutory right to paternity leave, as well as similar rights for adoptive parents. The new employment rules could force PR employers to reassess the way staff work as they cope with the potential financial impact of more flexible set-ups.

The views of PR recruiters vary widely on this issue. Peter Childs Limited MD Peter Childs says such rights might have been easier to introduce when times were better. 'Lots of businesses are under threat, people are pulling in their horns and it's harder for an employee who wants something extra,' he says.

The new rules see maternity leave extended to 26 weeks regardless of length of service. Mothers who have worked for a company for longer than six months before the 14th week prior to childbirth are also able to take an additional 26 weeks. Similar rights have been given to adoptive parents, while men become entitled to paternity leave with the option to take one or two weeks off - with statutory paternity pay of £100 a week - if they satisfy certain conditions.

While these changes will put pressure on companies and employees to adjust for short periods of time, the biggest potential change is the new right to ask for flexible working. Employees with children under six or those with disabled children under 18 will be able to request a reduction in the hours they work, a change to the times they are required to work or the right to work from home.

Employees will have to have worked for the company for more than six months before they can make this request and, while employers don't have to agree, they do have to provide clear business reasons if the application is not accepted.

The good news is that in many ways the PR industry is well prepared for such changes and, indeed, driven by its strongly female workforce, has long been willing to accommodate flexible working.

'I think enlightened agencies have been flexible about employment for years because many of their employees are women,' says director of PR industry management consultants Madsen Gornall Ashe Alastair Gornall.

'If you want to keep these people, you need to have already introduced flexibility into your work practices.'

Gornall says those who have introduced flexibility have found that it has a negligible impact on quality or productivity. 'Those who spend time working from home or making use of the flexibility are still as committed to the quality of the work,' he says. 'They want to make sure they do not let anyone down.'

Despite this general pat on the back, not everyone has made these strides.

Gornall estimates that 'maybe 30 to 40 per cent of agencies will find it a bit painful at first. It may cost some money in the short term for those agencies that haven't seen the light already.'

'It'll cost, no two ways about it, and it's not going to be easy,' adds former PRCA director-general Chris McDowall, now a partner at consultants the Pembridge Partnership.

MD at recruiter JFL Ros Kindersley says that, while agencies may be able to cope with demands to work four days a week, it would be difficult to accommodate shorter working weeks in some positions.

'Part-time is tricky if it's less than four days a week. If you're in a client-facing, fee-earning role it puts pressure on the team,' she says.

Within the industry, some cite the financial sector as being the least enlightened, although in part they put this down to the fact that the wider City is not renowned for its family-friendliness.

'There's always going to be a segment of our business where the environment is, I hate to use the word, macho, but that's what you are talking about,' says McDowall.

There is also the explanation that financial agencies tend to have proportionately more men in them and therefore perceive less of a need for flexibility.

The new regulations could also pose problems for smaller agencies. Can they cover for staffers who want a shorter working week? 'Small companies find it more difficult, particularly when most people have honed down to lean capacity. If one person isn't there, it really does stretch the team,' says Kindersley.

And there is some concern that, given the people most likely to take advantage of the new rules will be female, employers may start to discriminate in favour of male candidates. 'The nature of the business is that deadlines put pressure on people to work longer. Those that can't do that aren't going to be as attractive,' warns Childs.

And yet, while talent remains the key factor in employment, the PR world is showing a welcome willingness to allow for flexibility.

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