Hot topic: Feasible (or is it flexible?) work

Human Resources

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Feasible and flexible work is high on the agenda of the minister as well as the social partners at the moment. The social dialogue is no longer only about the salary and labor conditions, but it now also focuses on the content of the work. A striking example of this is the white fury[1].

Last week, employees from the social profit sector came out on the streets en masse. They demanded feasible and flexible work during their entire career. Especially the extra vacation days for older workers, so-called ‘wrinkle days’, that have to make working longer more durable, remain popular with the care takers.

More broadly, there has been a lot of fuss about the bill of ‘Feasible and Flexible Work.’[1] The bill comprises a cluster of measures which give an answer to the question of how we can mend the competitiveness of the labor market, how we can make the work feasible and flexible and how we can keep it workable for the employees and maneuverable for the employers. Therefore, the trade union speaks of ‘feasible and flexible work’, the employer organizations of ‘maneuverable work’ and the minister diplomatically of the ‘maneuverable feasible and flexible work’.

Feasible and flexible work monitored

The theme has gained significant importance since the Generation Pact and its logic goes as follows: if we want people to work longer, we must make sure it’s possible and doable. Trade unions emphasize how feasible and flexible work is something that needs to be relevant for all generations, not just for the elderly. They want to prevent that the concept is only looked at from an end-of-career-path perspective.

Since it is being monitored by the Foundation of Innovation and Labor (2004), we know that about 54 percent – and this is a quite stable figure – of the work is feasible and flexible. Important themes that were reported by the workers were: work stress, motivation, learning opportunities, and work and private life balance. The estimated work also shows a strong correlation with the motivation to effectively keep working till the (prolonged) retirement age. Hence these four points are crucial in the policy.

Existing frameworks

But how do you optimize feasible and flexible work in a way that individuals as well as co-workers, employers and the society can benefit from it? A possible starting point is at the level of the sector. Many social partners pick the sector as the most suitable level to start working on the issues and improvements surrounding feasible and flexible work. The healthcare sector simply has different needs than chemistry or the Horeca. Especially sectors with similar work situations have a common ground to invest in an approach specific for their sector (Janssens, 2015).

Many different sector-related feasibility projects have been realized, of which income is put on the agenda the most. But effective actions have rarely been taken (Janssens, 2015). Researchers who scoured the CAO regarding the feasible and flexible work came to the same conclusion. The most important part is that we reflect on the feasible and flexible work in the social dialogue on a company level. For now, there are no grand realizations. In many companies, there is a lack of concretization of employment plans, except in large companies with tradition and believers in the theme (Pollet & Lamberts, 2016).

Provision for older workers versus development possibilities

One of the possible explanations for this is that we still focus too much on older employees who stop their careers as soon as possible. In doing so, they aim too much on compensation or special provisions for older workers, for example extra vacation days for older workers and seniority vacation, and not enough on development policies, like an adjusted work content of a development trajectory. Employers find it difficult to give up on shift work or night work in exchange for a better regulation of working times.

An alternative for the special provision policy (policies that ought to reduce the workload) is often called the development strategy: a personnel-strategy that is aimed at boosting the motivation of the co-workers. But is one supposed to only invest in development policies? There is still much discussion surrounding this. As alternatives are difficult to get up and running, it is perhaps better to invest in a combination of policies of special provisions and development. Tailored work and permanent dialogue between employer and employees are imperative (De Lange & Van Dartel, 2015).

Old and young?

Must these policies only be made for the older employees? The younger denomination is often a requesting party as well and benefits from a sustainable motivational policy. For example, there could be an introduction of a few off-days for employees which they can choose to take according to their own needs throughout their career. This way the younger colleagues will avoid any adverse effects due to the absence of the senior colleagues. For example, in the health care sector where workers above 55 with 20 years of work-experience could work halftime or 4/5th of a day, this could be worth the try.

Social dialogue regarding feasible and flexible work finds itself on a turning point. At the moment, we are still searching and we pay to learn. HR managers and experts still consider this exclusively their domain. This way employee representatives end up being pushed into another role. Our trade unions and their representatives are still struggling with the new domain, which is why they are missing out on the ‘momentum’. What is important in this entire evolutionary process is to not lose sight of the focal point which is feasible and flexible work.

Craftsmanship before everything

Recently, one specific research related to this came to my attention. Michiel & Schalk (2016) researched the elderly with an average age of 66,7 years. Each of them had reported that they wanted to keep on working after their retirement, a kind of a self-selected group you could say. Each of them scored high in the craftsmanship criteria: setting personal goals and an attitude to constantly wanting to improve the tasks or to master the tasks even when it was not required. This is an important lesson for today’s organizations: when employees receive challenging assignments and the freedom to permanently keep on developing themselves and to improve, not only does that improve the present task performance but it substantially boosts the prospects too.

[1] The white fury is the protest movement of the non-profit sector concerning their working conditions
[2] Dutch: ‘Werkbaar en Wendbaar Werk’

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