Manufacturers ‘favour more ad hoc flexible working’

Manufacturers gain from flexible working, but they are worried that proposals to make flexible working open to all employees could backfire, according to new research from EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation.

As the government’s consultation on Modern Workplaces draws to an end and it launches the manufacturing stage of its Red Tape Challenge, EEF is calling on the government to look harder at alternatives to regulation which it says “get in the way of increasingly productive relationships between employers and employees”.

Its report, ‘Flexibility in the Modern Manufacturing Workplace’ published with Executives Online, shows that manufacturers have a growing need for flexibility driven by their focus on innovation and on buying and selling in a expanding range of world markets.

It says they are meeting these needs through an increasingly close partnership with employees, based on growing levels of communication and engagement and rewarding employees for working more flexibly. This includes, it says, operating a range of flexible working arrangements for employees such as part time working, individual hours and flexitime.

A significant majority of companies are increasing their investment in training to develop the skills they need to be flexible, says the report. But while almost four fifths (78%) of manufacturers believe that cooperative relationships with their workforce help them to achieve the flexibility, almost half (48%) fear that frequent changes in regulation will make it increasingly difficult to achieve the flexibility that they need in the future.

EEF Director of Policy, Steve Radley, said: “Flexibility is increasingly a two-way street in manufacturing. Manufacturers need to respond rapidly to changes in markets and customer needs. And more employees are looking for greater flexibility in how they work.

“Manufacturers tell us that they achieve the flexibility that they and their employees are seeking by working increasingly closely with them. But they are concerned that the constant churn of new regulation and the complexity of new laws are putting these positive relationships at risk.

“Supporting flexibility must be a key part of the government’s growth strategy. To do this, it needs to send a clear signal that additional regulation will be the last rather than the first resort and ensure that any new measures are simpler and much less prescriptive than what we have seen in recent years.”

Anne Beitel, Managing Director of Executives Online, said: “The world of work has seen rapid changes in the last few years and none more so than in manufacturing which is so exposed to global competition. Since 2009 it has been the fastest growing area for recruitment in the sectors we cover, with a 60% increase across all roles. However, what has become increasingly striking is the different approaches that companies are taking to recruitment. To assume that it remains the traditional process of permament full time positions is way behind the curve.

“Increasingly companies are now using a flexible mix of interim and permanent positions, both in the short and long term, with the number one reason being to bring in skills not already present in a company. Given changing work patterns which we can only expect to increase and, continued skills shortages, it is essential that manufacturers and their employees be given broad latitude to find these flexible solutions themselves, rather than by prescription.”

Amongst the key findings from the report were:

– Nine in ten companies said they needed to be flexible in order to respond to their customer needs, whilst over half said they needed to switch between markets or have short order books
– The vast majority of companies use overtime and changes to shift patterns
– A quarter use of firms temporary or agency workers but only 13% of companies make changes to permanent staff to respond to changes in demand
– Four fifths of companies said that co-operation between management and their workforce has helped in achieving the flexibility they needed in the past three years
– 94% of companies said that this will be vital in the next three years
– Two-way communication between employers and employees is critical to securing commitment. Three fifths of companies used three or more channels of communication with their employee
– Some 30% of firms think the UK environment provides the flexibility that their company needs and 41% disagree – a balance of -11%. However, this balance varies widely from + 1% for companies in the more predictable seasonal markets to -19% for those with short order books. These tend to be the more innovative companies in niche markets which we need to grow.

EEF would like to see the Government putting non-regulatory approaches first and wants current legislation to be simplified. It favours ways that promote a two-way approach to flexibility “allowing employers and employees to continue to have informal and ad hoc discussions about changes to working hours, terms and conditions etc”.

Steve Radley said: “Employers are already adopting many changes which are providing positive changes for their workforce. But there is a limit to how far companies can be expected to shoulder responsibility for achieving the government’s social objectives without a negative impact not just on their business, but on the employees themselves.”

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