Flex for the Future review – the critical issue of flexible working

Posted on 6 Jul 2012 by Tim Brown

The first conference in The Manufacturer’s Future Factory Series took place yesterday, Thursday 5 July, at the Hilton Metropole in Birmingham. Over 120 people attended the ‘Flex for the Future’ conference which explored ways of improving workforce flexibility and reducing avoidable costs and provided insights into the area of workforce management from industrial experts, academics and legal professionals.

With labour costs often singled out as the largest outlay for many businesses, the ‘Flex for the Future’ conference looked at the various issues involved in developing a flexible workforce including employment law and dealing with trade unions as well as the benefits of annualised hours and successful workforce scheduling and forecasting.

BAE Systems Case Study

Clair Winder, head of HR with BAE Systems’ Hawk Aircraft Programme, kicked off the conference with a case study looking at the Hawk Aircraft Programme Employment Retention Scheme. Despite admitting to being a first time public speaker, Ms Winder presented an excellent and informative presentation on the scheme, which was an agreement to allow BAE employees to take up to 111 hours of unpaid work per year in order to safe guard 85 jobs.

Brought into fruition in just 7 weeks, Ms Winder spoke of her passion and strong belief in the scheme which was carried in a vote by an overwhelming majority of BAE staff with only about six out of 2000 workers voting against it.

“Right from the outset, we absolutely had a common goal,” said Ms Winder. “We wanted to make sure that we could avoid compulsory redundancies. That was the right thing to do from an employment point of view because it safe guarded the jobs. And it was the right thing to do from a company point of view because we had a potential cost saving that we would have had to pay out in redundancy payments. But perhaps more importantly was the reputational damage that would have occurred had we had the compulsory redundancies.”

Key to gaining the support of the workers for the arrangement, which has not actually needed to be enforced at this stage, was the involvement of the trade union and specifically the Unite Spokesperson, Phil Entwistle, who joined Ms Winder on stage for the question and answer section of her presentation.

This trend of support for trade unions was continued throughout the remainder of the morning session and later included a presentation from Unite Assistant General Secretary, Tony Burke, who spoke about how businesses can better work with trade unions and why the Government’s proposed changes to employment law, including the so called ‘Fire at Will’ proposals are deficient. A blog from Mr Burke on this topic is available here.

General Motors Case Study

Phil Willward, HR resources director at General Motors UK and Ireland, discussed the designing and implementation of a flexible working proposal at Vauxhall Motors, which was needed following a period of difficulty which faced General Motors at its European plants.

Again, union involvement was highlighted as critical to the successful implementation of a flexible working scheme which effectively saved 15,000 direct and indirect jobs at the Vauxhall Ellesmere Port Plant. Several times throughout his presentation, Mr Willward reiterated his support for the Trade Union saying: “The trade unions are not the problem. More often, they are the solution to the problem.”

The end result of the plan was the development of a legally binding agreement which secured a number of employee concessions including a two year wage freeze and the implementation of a “corridor scheme” which involved the introduction of flexible hours as well as catch back and additional volume options. Since the implementation of the system, the Vauxhall site has been awarded the contract for the new generation Astra and the site is looking to hire approximately 700 new staff.

Legal issues and annualised hours

Prior to lunch were two legal presentations and a consultant perspective on workforce management. Simon Fenton, Partner at Thomas Eggar, looked at contracting for flexible working and annualised hours and discussed the legal rights and responsibilities from both the employee and employer perspective. Specifically he looked largely at the ‘Right to Request’ flexible work laws which have been in place since 2002 and stipulate that employees have the right to ask for flexible working conditions particularly when needing the flexibility in order to care for a family member. He also discussed what rights employers have to refuse such requests which can be made on the grounds of cost, customer demand, and an inability to reorganise staff.

Tracey Marsden, a Partner at law firm Nabarro, discussed recent employment regulation and its effect on manufacturers. Her discussion covered a number of key areas, but most interesting were her discussions on agency workers and sick leave. Her initial discussion focussed on the Agency Workers Regulation which stipulates that agency workers must be treated equally and have access to facilities (canteen, child-care, transport etc) and must also be informed about access to relevant permanent roles.

In addition, Ms Marsden also discussed the Stringer and Pereda rulings regarding sick leave. In the Stringer case, the European Court of Justice ruled that entitlement to paid annual leave continues to accrue during sick leave, even if the employee is on sick leave for the whole year and does no work. While the court found, in the Pereda ruling, that where a worker fell sick shortly before pre-arranged annual leave, the worker can request to take the period of annual leave which overlapped with sickness as annual leave at a later date.

Neville Henderson, Senior Consultant at flexible working specialists Pasfield Curran, discussed the benefits of introducing annualised hours. He had a number of key points but of particular interest were the improvements that such changes can make to training programmes and sick leave reduction. According to him, with annualised hours and reserved hours, it is easier to undertake training as instead of finding when people will be working and taking people off a line and back filling the line. With annualised hours you can see when they are not planning to be at work, ask them to come in, and do the training without disrupting the line.

Secondly, he said, annualised hours can also greatly reduce sick leave as instead of employees benefiting with overtime pay when co-workers are sick, sick leave can be filled with reserved hours instead. According to Henderson, this frequently results in a considerable reduction in absenteeism among staff.

The afternoon session

The remainder of the day featured primarily case study presentations from manufacturers themselves including: Derek McIntyre of Veragroup, Ian Greenaway of MTM products, and Geoff Evans and Collin Watts of Aimia Foods. All the presentations will be available early next week from https://www.themanufacturer.com/eventsite/flex-for-the-future-conference-2012/#workshops_

Winding up the conference was a presentation from Dr Wilson Wong, Senior Researcher at The Work Foundation. Wilson leads key research streams of HR and Leadership as part of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness. His presentation looked at the constantly changing relationship between employers and their workforce and took some time to look at the recent modifications made in the areas of technology, business models and employee expectations.

Overall the conference touched on a number of critical issues which companies need to consider when looking at instilling a more flexible workforce to allow for future growth. If this is an area you would like any further information on, The Manufacturer is more than happy to help and can put you in touch with any of our speakers or sponsors.

The next conference in the Future Factory series will focus on innovation and will be held on 16 October 2012 this year. More information will be available shortly from https://www.themanufacturer.com/eventsite/innovate-to-grow-conference-2012/. If you would like to register you interest for the next event, please email Peter Kealy at [email protected].