Stress out: the staff who take their work home

In the third of our series on workplace benefits, Esther Shaw reports on family-friendly hours and other flexible arrangements

Homeworking? It's for those people watching daytime TV in their pyjamas.

Homeworking? It's for those people watching daytime TV in their pyjamas.

Flexible working arrangements used to be something of a joke, but those days have long gone. The demands of the workplace have changed and, at the same time, a better work-life balance has become something we all aspire to.

As families - those with single parents and where both partners are in paid employment - struggle with childcare and other domestic issues, flexible hours are becoming important.

And it's not just parents who need to work from home. Several million employees in the UK are currently juggling their daytime job with responsibilities as carers for elderly or disabled partners or relatives.

The good news is that the old-fashioned culture of long and rigid hours in the office is giving way to a range of flexible working options. A growing number of organisations now offer job share and homeworking arrangements, for example. The change has been made easier by a government drive to put family-friendly policies centre stage.

In April 2003, a law was passed that gave parents of children under six (and of disabled children under 18) the right to ask to work flexibly. This request can cover a change to the number of hours worked, start and finish times, or even a switch to working at home.

By law, employers are required to "seriously consider" the request. If it is turned down, there must be a valid reason for the decision.

Last December, the Government published a 10-year strategy for childcare, under which maternity leave will be extended from six to nine months by 2007. The flexible working rights granted to parents will be extended to all workers.

And last week, Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Education, pitched in with a £680m proposal to keep schools open from 8am to 6pm to help parents working outside the home.

Against this background, companies are reviewing their working practices. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), four in 10 employers now do more than the legal minimum in granting requests from staff to change their hours or operate from home.

And employers increasingly recognise that flexible working can engender greater staff loyalty, the CIPD adds. A recent study from the campaigning charity Working Families found that it was the most effective way to reduce absenteeism.

Today, a quarter of Britain's workforce takes advantage of flexible arrangements, but not all employers have embraced the concept. Many express concern about the cost and inconvenience. Yet "flexi" is hardly a new phenomenon and has benefited thousands of businesses. There's no reason why it can't be considered, but what exactly does it involve?

Flexible working has become a catch-all phrase that includes many different contractual arrangements between workers and employers. Many of us will be familiar with flexi-time, where staff agree to work a minimum and maximum number of hours each month but come and go as they please.

An alternative is to try to agree a set number of hours with your employer over the course of a year - a deal known as "annualised hours". This can be particularly useful if you have a job with seasonal variations.

The most common form of annualised hours is "term-working", where your employer agrees to give you unpaid leave during school holidays. Although you're off work for long periods, you can arrange to have your salary paid each month.

Another flexible alternative is to compress your working time - doing your contractual hours in four days as opposed to five, for example.

Job sharing lets two people split the hours and responsibilities of one job between them. Each receives the same pro rata salary. But if you opt for this arrangement, be aware that both your state pension entitlement and any private pension provision will be affected.

"You can negotiate on benefits [such as holidays or health insurance]," says Jonathan Swan of Working Families, "but your pension will be in proportion to your hours and your salary."

Teleworking (where you work from home, maintaining contact with colleagues, customers or a central office via a phone and computer) has been made much easier thanks to high-speed broadband.

If you choose to work alone, you must be prepared for the isolation. Keep boundaries between your working and private life and make sure they don't become blurred. Otherwise, you could find yourself back working the sort of long hours you left the office to avoid.

A JOB SPLIT, TIME AT HOME DOUBLED

Jayne Woolmore, an executive secretary for Skipton building society, has been sharing a job for the past decade.

The arrangement has made all the difference in allowing the 41-year-old mother of two to spend more time with her young children.

Jayne began job sharing just after the birth of her first child, Eleanor, who is now 12.

"I knew I wanted to go back to work," she says. "But working full-time after my daughter was born became too much. So I approached my employer, who was willing to be flexible."

Jayne then set up a job share with colleague Sue Robinson.

"Sue works two days a week and I work three. We both have two children and have been job sharing for so long that we've built up a real partnership. Benefits and holidays are divided between us pro rata."

New technology has made Jayne's job much easier in recent years, especially when it comes to the handover.

"I love having two extra days at home to give my children individual attention," she says.

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