Homeworking: Fairness Works Both Ways

Homeworkers in Oswestry are funny for money
Homeworkers in Oswestry are funny for money (Photo credit: BT Comic Relief 2013)

This article gives rich evidence on key things to get right in managing homeworking. It also points to some of the benefits, notably in employees’ commitment. The research asks how homeworking practices relate to employees’ psychological contracts, which is to say, their expectations of the flexible working scheme and their employment relationship as a whole. The research comprised in-depth interviews with English local authority employees: 13 female clerical homeworkers, 12 of their office-based colleagues and their managers or team leaders.

The authors give a nice overview of ‘idiosyncratic deals’ (I-deals) as they relate to flexible working practices, including homeworking, flexitime and compressed hours and term-time contracts. I-deals are terms of employment that are negotiated, usually informally with a boss, to meet the needs of individual employees and the organisation. While HR policies on flexible working arrangements are becoming ever more common, as shown by the government Work-Life Balance Surveys, in practice arrangements are also agreed informally, on a case-by-case basis and in the context of the employment relationship.

There are various nuances of flexible working that are worth noting. Benefits for employees include being able to lead richer lives, as they can “snatch moments of time and use them for their own personal use”. However, there are gender differences in how it is used: for example, women more often using the flexibility of homeworking to help them look after children or do housework and male homeworkers more often just end up doing longer hours.

The question of drawbacks to the organisation of flexible working is also discussed. The authors argue that while some employers fear that it will give rise to resentment among colleagues, this usually proves not to be the reality. And the demand for it is undeniable – the article cites a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey that says 47% of employees value flexible working above bonuses.

Two themes emerge from the interviews with council employees. Firstly, temporal flexibility was a clear expectation of the organisation. For some employees with children, this was a question of avoiding ‘horrendous’ quality of life and being able to handle family commitments alongside work. For others, it was simply about being able to ‘fit work around their life’, so that they could do things like study for a degree or get their housework done during the week.

But in reality, temporal flexibility varied according to the supervisor. Some allowed employees to do their hours any time they wanted and others applied a ‘core hours’ policy and expected employees to say in advance when they would be working. Some employees felt that the stricter managers missed the principle of greater flexibility, but in general, employees’ expectations were met.

Secondly, the principle of fairness was also important to homeworkers. They expected to be treated the same as other employees, in particular with regard to pay, benefits and management procedures. This was generally felt to be the case in practice. There were some changes, with homeworkers noting a greater variety in the work they were given, but there were mixed views on this. While some associated the change with larger workloads, others saw it as positive.

Homeworking can be an important strand in the sense of fairness in the employment relationship and strengthen the psychological contract. It is important to note that this works both ways, to benefit the organisation as well as the employee. For example, one homeworker said she would hesitate to move to another organisation, even if they offered homeworking: “That would have to take some thinking about because the council have invested a lot of money in me and this is where the loyalty comes in isn’t it? You’ve got to be fair.”

Reference

Collins, A., Cartwright, S. & Hislop, D. (2013) Homeworking: Negotiating the Psychological Contract. Human Resource Management Journal. 23(2), pp.211-225.

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