When it comes to flexible working, research shows that small is beautiful

With the Prime Minister Tony Blair’s paternityrights in the public eye at the moment, this has never been more so.

Think-tanks and ‘life-style’ gurus produce endless reports on how to managethe balance, but what are the companies themselves doing about it?

Actually, some are doing quite well, according to a research team at theJudge Institute of Management Studies, Cambridge University’s business school.

Looking at small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the team found that,while it is generally assumed that large companies are leading the field inflexible-working, it is actually the SMEs that have been most effective atcoming up with solutions.

Many had undertaken a serious examination of thecosts before implementing flexible-work schemes and, as result, found thatthey were able to treat employees individually, addressing their personalneeds.

Their survey showed that SMEs are small enough to adopt effectivefamily-friendly policies and that their business performance actuallybenefited from having happier, less-stressed workers and a culture offlexibility.

By contrast, it was found that the larger firms, being more bureaucratic innature, had imposed formal policies aimed at giving their staff anentitlement to flexibility. This had the effect of alienatingmiddle-management who suddenly found that they were compelled to manage acomplex range of flexibility options.

The findings of the research vindicated the team’s belief that flexibilityis commercially viable and should, therefore, be highly desirable to thesecompanies. This is in addition to the social benefits of family friendlyarrangements.

At onefirm surveyed the research found that an employee whose husband had fallen ill wasgiven the option to work in a way that suited her new requirements. Herfull-time position was held for the 18-months that it took for her husbandto recover, during which she worked some evenings and from home, graduallybuilding back up to full-time. There was no formal structure within thecompany to facilitate this. The case was taken on its own merits.

Fiona Scheibl and Shirley Dex at the Judge Institute are now developingtheir research further and are beginning to investigate how SMEs aretackling the problems associated with adopting a culture of flexibility.

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