Smart Moves: Freelance and very happy, thank you

Rather than being the victims of downsizing, flexible workers are a happy lot, says Philip Schofield

FEW EMPLOYERS have work which is spread evenly throughout the year, or even through the month, the week or working day. As a result, they have developed new employee working arrangements. Fewer of their people now work regular hours in full-time jobs and follow a long-term career path. Growing numbers have non-standard working arrangements such as part-time working, fixed-term contracts, flexitime and temping.

There are clear benefits for employers in having a flexible workforce which can be turned on and off like a tap. But are there any obvious advantages for the flexible worker?

According to recent research, three-quarters of those working non-standard hours do so from choice, not necessity. The vast majority are committed to their work and see the opportunity for flexible working as a positive benefit. Moreover, most are happy with the amount of training they receive compared with that given to full-time staff. On the other hand, many feel it is harder to get promotion because of their working arrangements.

The survey into the realities of new working patterns was conducted last autumn by the recruitment consultancy TMP Worldwide. The survey report, The Flexible Workforce - Fact or Fiction? described the attitudes of 785 flexible workers, mostly in "white collar" occupations, working for 22 large employers in the public and private sectors.

Although the survey found that attitudes to flexible working were generally favourable, there are significant differences between men and women and between different age groups. For instance, although 73.2 per cent work non-standard hours out of choice, only 57.7 per cent of the men did so compared with just over three-quarters of the women. Similarly, fewer than two-thirds of those under 35 choose to work non-standard hours while over three-quarters of those over 50 do so.

Reasons for choosing a particular pattern of work vary. Over half said that their working hours are dictated by their commitments at home. However this proportion rises to around three-quarters for those with pre-school and school age children living at home. Nearly two-thirds said that their working pattern gives them the freedom to do what they want to do. This view is particularly marked among those aged 36-50.

Men in non-standard jobs tend to work far longer hours than women. Three- quarters of the men work 36 hours or more a week, with almost one in five working at least 45 hours. In contrast, nearly two-thirds of the women work 30 hours or fewer.

The needs of children at home probably accounts for much of the difference in male and female working hours. Yet the survey found that mothers with young children are ambivalent in their attitudes to workplace childcare facilities. Although four in 10 saw on-site childcare schemes as valuable, almost half said they had no value. But around 80 per cent of mothers and fathers with children at home saw parental leave as a valuable benefit.

Employers sometimes assume that people who choose to work flexible hours are less committed to their jobs and less career- minded. The survey suggests otherwise. A large majority (80.9 per cent) say they feel committed to their job, and only a small minority (7.7 per cent) have any doubts in this respect.

Levels of commitment were high in all sectors of employment, although there were variations. Commitment was highest in the NHS and lowest in local government, with private sector employers in between. Women appear to be slightly more committed than men, and older workers significantly more so (85 per cent) than those aged under 35 (72.5 per cent).

Almost two-thirds say that they are satisfied with the amount of training they receive in comparison with full-time staff. However, almost one in five disagree. Although NHS workers were found to be the most committed to their jobs, they seem to be the least satisfied with their training provision, with over a quarter expressing unhappiness. There was also dissatisfaction with the way flexible workers are treated in comparison with full-time staff.

In spite of reservations which some flexible workers have over training, promotion prospects and how they are treated compared with full-time staff, most appear happy with their lot.

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