What are employee benefits and who really benefits from their provision?

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This month’s guest post on employee benefits is written by Stefano Gasparri, Senior Lecturer in HRM, UWE Bristol.

This blog brings to the fore the importance of employee benefits for organisations and employees, as part of their reward offering. I have recently authored two articles (details below) on employee benefits that draw out the advantages and disadvantages of this reward tool, from a critical perspective. Employee benefits have long constituted a classic human resources (HR) topic that also fits with the University of the West of England’s (UWE) research priorities on health and well-being. If you have an interest in employee benefits (you may be an employer, employee or someone who has a research interest in this area) then please read on. 

What are employee benefits and who really benefits from their provision?

Employee benefits usually include healthcare insurance and retirement plans, educational tuition reimbursement and recreational facilities, childcare and elder assistance, wellness programs, extra holiday allowances and shop discounts (SHRM 2018) and, as such, they have an evident impact on the life quality of their recipients. Often, there is also a positive effect on productivity, a key concern for business organisations and policymakers alike that HR experts have long discussed. The CIPD (2021), for instance, assumes that employee benefits constitute a typical tool of a reward strategy that aims to attract, motivate, engage and retain workers; at the same time, it acknowledges that not all benefits are the same: some are suited to achieve specific goals; others have a social purpose (e.g. sustainable mobility) and therefore are fiscally promoted (e.g. salary sacrifice schemes). What is certain is that employee benefits pertain to complex issues, so here is how I try to explore and clarify them.

My starting point is the work by Titmus (1976), who associated different benefits with three types of welfare – social (based on public agencies), fiscal (tax breaks) and occupational (industry-based). He illustrated that their mix is based on private and public sources, concluding that what really matters is how these two integrate: are they well intertwined, supporting each other, or in constant tension, undermining each other? I apply this reasoning to employee benefits, which I frame in terms of ‘company welfare’ and consider a form of occupational welfare whose diffusion depends on measures of fiscal welfare and affects the provision of social welfare. Then I focus on what drives changes of this welfare mix and note that interest organisations play a key role. The literature here offers contrasting examples: it can be workers’ mobilisation and their ability to forge cross-class alliances to push for the egalitarian social policies and benefits, as occurred in Sweden throughout the XXth c. (Esping Andersen 1985); vice versa, it can be employers’ resistance to public welfare the main reason why companies emerge as the gateway to benefits, as happened in the US after WW2 with private pension and health insurance plans (Swenson 2002). Eventually, the question that underlies my research interest in employee benefits is the following: who benefits the most, amongst individuals, business organisations and/or society as a whole, from the diffusion of employee benefits and how/why the transformations of such benefits over time alter this? The two articles I wrote contribute to answer this question in two different ways, as illustrated in the next section.

Insights on employee benefits from two articles about ‘company welfare’ in Italy

The first article, published in the Management Revue – Socio-Economic Studies, examines the changes of employee benefits in light of the controversies associated with paternalistic work regimes (Thompson 1978; Dworkin 2020). It reviews historical (industrial, scientific, bureaucratic, sophisticated) and recent (libertarian) variants of paternalism (Jacobi 1998; Kaufman 2001; Thaler and Sunstein 2005), eventually framing contemporary developments in terms of ‘market paternalism’. This is a rather counterintuitive neologism that appreciates the marketization of employee benefits and the measures of fiscal and corporate welfare that support it (Farnsworth 2013; Morel et al. 2018; Greer and Umney 2021). Evidence to substantiate this argument comes from an overview of historical forms of paternalism and the evolution of company welfare schemes in Italy.

The second article, published in the Journal of Industrial Relations, applies the concept of ‘frames of reference’ (Fox 1974; Heery 2016) to explain the growth of company welfare in Italy after the 2008 crisis (Colombo and Regalia 2016; Sacchi 2018). The analysis considers three phases: in the first, a path-breaking case, the eyewear conglomerate Luxottica, launches an innovative set of employee benefits (Eurofound, 2012), nourishing a debate on the potential of company welfare (McKinsey, 2013; Ferrera and Maino, 2014); then, Renzi’s government promotes company welfare through tax breaks in the 2015-2016 budget laws (Eurofound, 2016); finally, trade unions try to affect the diffusion of company welfare, displaying contrasting ideologies as well as pragmatic joint solutions in the process. Overall, two contiguous sub-frames – ‘consultative unitarism’ and ‘collaborative pluralism’ (Bray et al. 2020) – offer the mainstream justification to the events and the policy debate around them (Heery 2016; Gasparri 2017). A critical interpretation is present too, suggesting that the recent success of company welfare schemes is due to the mobilisation of a political and economic elite and results in few cases of positive employment relations alongside broad social inequalities and economic imbalances (Johnstone and Wilkinson 2016).

Conclusions and implications for practice

My research on employee benefits and company welfare examines crucial aspects underlying the role of business organisations in health and wellbeing. It contributes to clarify the interconnections between private and public sources of welfare, a topic attracting renewed attention (Natali et al. 2018; Seelkopf and Starke 2019) and that the Covid-19 pandemic makes even more topical (e.g. my latest research is on the role of interest organisations in national immunisation campaigns and, wherever present, company vaccination programmes). At the same time, the analysis has implications for practice, which can be summarised in the following four recommendations.

  • Put employee benefits in perspective. The history of company welfare displays very different forms of benefits, whose rationale ranges from enlightened to authoritarian, from residual to rewarding, each time expressing a peculiar relationship with other welfare measures, either positive or negative. It is important for practitioners to understand the context they operate in and how employee benefits fit in: if inclusion and sustainability are key to today’s business, employee benefits are to be shaped accordingly.
  • Beware of tax breaks favouring employee benefits, especially in the medium term. The more employee benefits are normalised through tax incentives, the less they are an effective lever for enhancing employee productivity. When benefits interfere with wage dynamics, expect further scrutiny, disputes and dissatisfaction.
  • Watch out for employee benefits experts! The market for welfare services is enlarging for many reasons (e.g. ageing workforce, tight public budgets) and constitutes a massive business opportunity for specialised providers, often multinationals, tied with large consultancy firms, the finance industry and academic thinktanks. This might be far from convenient to employers, who are charged fees to offer benefits to their own employees. Whether the tax incentives will offset these fees is uncertain.
  • Is a win-win scenario possible? Within companies, employees tend to welcome such initiatives: when wages stagnate, the offer of employee benefits and their fiscal convenience look attractive. Besides, on some occasions, trade unions have a say on the design and implementation of such schemes, pressing for the creation of industry-wide negotiated programmes. However, looking beyond the organisational level, company welfare schemes risk provoking social inequalities and economic imbalances. Taxpayers in Italy, for instance, are funding those companies in a better position to take advantage of the tax breaks to employee benefits, that is mostly large manufacturers and finance players in Northern Italy, arguably the least in need of such support across the country.

References

Gasparri, S. (2020), Employee benefits and paternalistic work regimes. Historical and contemporary perspectives on company welfare in Italy, Management Revue – Socio-Economic Studies, 31(4): 465–488.

Gasparri, S. (2021), Framing work and welfare. Insights from the growing relevance of company welfare in Italy, Journal of Industrial Relations, 63(2): 235-262.

Gasparri 2020 —> https://doi.org/10.5771/0935-9915-2020-4-465

 Gasparri 2021 —> https://doi.org/10.1177/0022185620973685 (open access)

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Barry M and Wilkinson A (2016) Pro-social or pro-management? A critique of the conception of employee voice as a pro-social behaviour within organizational behaviour. British Journal of Industrial Relations 54(2): 261–284.

Bray M, Budd J and Macneil J (2020) The many meanings of co-operation in the employment relationship and their implications. British Journal of Industrial Relations 58(1): 114–141.

CIPD (2012), Employee benefits: an introduction, Factsheet. Retrieved 20.04.2021: https://www.cipd.co.uk/knowledge/fundamentals/people/benefits/factsheet#gref

Colombo S and Regalia I (2016) Changing joint regulation and labour market policy in Italy during the crisis: On the edge of a paradigm shift? European Journal of Industrial Relations 22(3): 295–309.

Dworkin, G. (2020). ‘Paternalism’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition). Retrieved 20.04.2021: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/paternalism/

Esping Andersen G (1985) Power and distributional regimes. Politics & Society 14(2): 223–256.

Eurofound (2012) Rise in occupational welfare benefit schemes, 26 February. Retrieved 20.04.2021: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/it/publications/article/2012/rise-in-occupational-welfare-benefit-schemes

Eurofound (2016) Italy: New Stability Law extends range of tax-exempt benefits, 27 April. Retrieved 20.04.2021: https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/article/2016/italy-new-stability-law-extends-range-of-tax-exempt-benefits

Farnsworth, K. (2013). Bringing Corporate Welfare In. Journal of Social Policy, 42(1): 1–22.

Ferrera M and Maino F (2014) Social innovation beyond the State. Italy’s Secondo welfare in a European Perspective. WP-2WEL – 2/14. Available at: https://secondowelfare.it/allegati/ferrera_maino_wp2_2014_2wel.pdf (accessed 06 November 2020).

Fox A (1974) Beyond Contract. London: Faber and Faber.

Gasparri S (2017). Studying work in theory and practice: Insights for a globalising academia from the IR trajectory in Italy. Industrial Relations Journal 48(4): 310–325.

Greer, I. and Umney, C. (2021), Against Marketization: How Capitalist Exchange Subverts Democracy and Disciplines Workers, Zed Books.

Heery E (2016) Framing Work. Unitary, Pluralist and Critical Perspectives in the 21st Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jacoby, S. (1998). Modern Manors: Welfare Capitalism since the New Deal. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Johnstone S and Wilkinson A (eds) (2016) Developing Positive Employment Relations: International Experiences of Labour Management Partnership. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kaufman, B. (2001). The theory and practice of strategic HRM and participative management: Antecedents in early industrial relations. Human Resource Management, 11(4): 505–533.

Morel N, Palier B and Palme J (2012) Towards a Social Investment Welfare State? Ideas, Policies and Challenges. Bristol: Policy Press.

Morel, N., Touzet, C. & Zemmour, M. (2018). Fiscal welfare in Europe: Why should we care and what do we know so far? Journal of European Social Policy, 28(5): 549–560.

Natali D, Keune M, Pavolini E, et al. (2018) Sixty years after Titmuss: New findings on occupational welfare in Europe. Social Policy Administration 52(2): 435–448.

Sacchi S (2018) The Italian Welfare State in the crisis: Learning to adjust? South European Society and Politics 23(1): 29–46.

Seelkopf L and Starke P (2019) Social policy by other means: Theorizing unconventional forms of welfare production. Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice 21(3): 219–234.

SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) (2018). Employee Benefits. The Evolution of Benefits. Alexandria, VA: SHRM.

Swenson, P. (2002). Capitalists against Markets: The Making of Labor Markets and Welfare States in the United States and Sweden. Oxford: OUP.

Thaler, R. and Sunstein, C. (2005). Libertarian Paternalism. American Economic Review, 93(2): 175–179.

Thompson, E. P. (1978). Eighteenth-Century English Society: Class Struggle. Social History, 3 (2): 133–66.

Titmuss, R. (1976). Essays on the welfare state. London: Allen and Unwin.

Forbes Article – ‘Gig workers are the workforce of the future: Here’s how to engage them’

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Dr Rochelle Haynes, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at UWE Bristol and CEO of Crowd Potential Consulting Group co-authored a recent global survey of nearly 2,000 independent workers and business leaders, some of the survey findings were highlighted in a recent article written by Larry English for Forbes last month.

(Excerpts taken from Forbes article)

More and more, workers are breaking free of the 9-to-5 paradigm and striking out on their own as independent contractors, freelancers and digital nomads.  Although a large percentage of business leaders expect gig workers to make up a larger share of their workforce in the near future, the reality is few have figured out how to effectively engage them. A recent global survey of nearly 2,000 independent workers and business leaders showed that only 10% of gig workers feel highly valued by their clients, and half feel undervalued. Additionally, many of these workers receive no support and are rarely recognized or rewarded for their contributions, says Dr. Rochelle Haynes.

The relationship between businesses and gig workers must evolve if businesses want to continue attracting top talent and maintain a competitive edge. In addition to highlighting the problems gig workers encounter, Dr. Haynes’s research also provided clarity on how businesses can better engage these workers and tap into their value:

  • Design a comprehensive onboarding process for gig workers. “One of the things we heard from digital nomads was that they’ve had jobs get delayed because they couldn’t get in touch with a person in the organization,” Dr. Haynes says.
  • Create a work environment that embraces all types of workers. Dr. Haynes, who helps companies and gigsters work better together, suggests putting mechanisms in place to make sure gig workers’ needs are being met – perhaps by offering a coworking membership or setting up hot desks at the office so gig workers can easily drop in.
  • Figure out what thrills your gig workers. “A lot of gig workers complained that they weren’t appreciated and recognized for what they do in the same way full-time workers were,” Dr. Haynes says, adding that companies need to learn how to adequately recognize the contributions of everyone.
  • Provide gig workers with some security. While some gig workers are happy to hop from job to job with no safety net, many others would appreciate some security, Dr. Haynes says. Considering that the biggest risks gig workers face are late payments and unreliable cash flow, companies should offer reliable payment and clear, mutually agreed-upon contracts.  

To find out more about the four points above on successfully engaging Gig workers, read the full Forbes article HERE

Power crafting at work: Notes from a journey in search of a phenomenon

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This guest post was written by Aykut Berber, Associate Professor in Critical HRM and Management Studies at UWE, Bristol.

What does having power mean ‘to’ an individual at work? Power and power relations in organizations have long been among the major topics explored in management. Studies are countless, yet, the conventional perspective is extensively structural where most debates revolve around hierarchical status, positions and controlling resources (e.g. Tost, 2015). But what is power from the perspective of an individual at work? Or more precisely, how does one see, understand, conceptualize and implement their own power at work? In this small blog post, I would like to share some feelings and thoughts we experienced in generating a framework for our study on power crafting at work which we published in Human Relations last year (Berber & Acar, 2020).

Our journey began three years ago on a warm November day back in Istanbul University, where I was working as Professor of Business Management and Organization. I remember me sitting with Gökhan, my co-author and a long-time friend and colleague from the department, at the school cafeteria holding a very long discussion on teaching. At first, bounded by mainstream management’s assumptions and categories, our thoughts were quite generic. This was, of course, no surprise. Teaching in business studies hardly allows one to move away from prescribed ideas in textbooks and academic journals about what management is and how an organization is run. But then, through the various teaching experiences we encountered over the past many years in the same institution, we found ourselves raising thought-provoking questions about what we teach in our management classes and what students actually did later in practice: The organization, in a sense, objectifies and subjects its members in a manner disguised as “empowerment” whereas employees make their own decisions and implement them in their social environments. But do all employees think that this “given power” is part of the mechanism by which the management of teams, departments and the wider organization is maintained? More provokingly, are they always happy to have it, embrace it, use it? To what extent are textbooks and the training provided in business schools successful to construct future managers that all together embrace the “taught” concepts of authority, power and management? How do individuals individually and socially construct their own versions of power at work?

We began our investigations right away. We never intended to make claim to introduce an alternative definition of power at work. Instead, our focus was on the individuals themselves and on gaining insight into their intentions, drives and strategies in shaping and exerting their own power at work. We wanted to understand how having and using power was understood from the perspectives of the individuals at work. What we were investigating was indeed an experiential phenomenon and we knew from the early stages that we had to immerse ourselves in interview transcriptions as well as in individual contexts and stories of our participants. There was, indeed, a particular language of management that was found in textbooks eulogizing the power held by managers in organizations and seducing readers (future managers) to “absorb it into their identities”, who were to be further shaped by organizations in which they would work (Harding, 2003: p.7). But we approached power from a very different angle: power as knowledge constructed by individuals as a result of their social interactions. In other words, what power meant to one person could mean a very different thing to another. A CEO, for example, was always acknowledged as powerful, but every CEO would come with their own definition of power and their own individual method for implementing power in an organization. People in organizations were given positions and assigned titles such as leader, manager, director, etc., but a close analysis of how they conceptualized and implemented their subjective interpretations of power associated with such positions and titles would reveal very different notions of power at work.

To develop a narrative about the phenomenon, we needed to keep ourselves away from mainstream (and objective!) definitions given for power. We discussed with our friends and students at the university and with several people in our social circles. The notion about having power at work was always there, but this was often associated with a great will to conduct relationships and use resources at work to address individual goals and ambitions that could contribute to the organization’s strategies, but more importantly, to self-development and achievement. This required a close questioning of not only what participants said, but also what meanings we and the participants assigned to their experiences. We asked: How do individuals use their discretion to make sense of their job descriptions, roles and responsibilities, and to subjectively interpret their right to exercise power at work? How do they use this discretion “in a group” to have their decisions accepted and implemented?’

The literature on power was vast and, compared to other concepts in management studies, relatively mature. However, even recent studies were still haunted by the core principles of managerialism with implications of hierarchical authority over expertise, the worthiness of efforts for profit over competence, obedience and compliance with rules over trust among individuals. It was apparent that the word “authority” was no more popular and a lot of discussions revolved around addressing issues for individuals to work flexibly to ensure efficient and creative outcomes. However, a close reading of the literature allowed us to get assured that the widely acknowledged assumption was still intrinsic to a wide range of studies: Individuals were “granted” the power and the flexibility to use that power as expected by the organizations. But what, in practice, did these individuals think? How did they interpret this “given power”? From the perspective of the micro-organizational behavior, it was also apparent that individuals acted freely within the boundaries of the power they were given, but who set these boundaries was still a mystery.

Drawing on these assumptions and gaps in the literature, we delineated our framework and redefined our question: How do individuals conceptualize and construct their power at work? We agreed that each of our participants would be the true cognizant of their own individual experience in their own real-life context—we would not look for generalizable claims. Inspired by the highly acknowledged conceptual framework proposed by Wrzesniewski & Dutton (2001) for job crafting, we framed power crafting as a phenomenon where individuals actively alter the meaning of their power at work, socially and physically shape their own power and change the way they see themselves as power holders at work. We employed interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) to understand the power crafting phenomenon through several dimensions. Some participants remained within the boundaries of the role assigned by their position, but they also had their own interpretations about the power embedded into those positions. But more interestingly, few participants chose a different path. Although they were seemingly interested in getting a position in the organization, their actual aim was more about building their own territories within their organizations.

For our own part, we were encouraged to suggest that power crafting could also potentially be useful in understanding proactive behaviors shown by individuals at work from a very different perspective. Individuals at work could tend to present themselves as rational, logical controllers of chaos adapting what has been described in textbooks (Harding, 2003: p.188) and what has been assigned as power in organizations. But individuals also have their own ways of seeing things, defense mechanisms, ambitions and strategies. They are not mere objects and the phenomenon is always there: power crafting.

References:

Berber, A., & Acar, A. G. (2020). Power crafting at work: A phenomenological study on individual differences. Human Relations, 0018726720942828.

Harding, N. (2003). The Social Construction of Management. London/New York: Routledge.

Tost, L. P. (2015). When, why, and how do powerholders “feel the power”? Examining the links between structural and psychological power and reviving the connection between power and responsibility. Research in Organizational Behavior35, 29-56.

The networked self: exploring networks as a source of career development and identity for female engineers

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This month’s guest post is written by Dr Vanda Papafilippou, Senior Lecturer in HRM, UWE Bristol.

Women comprise just 12% of the UK engineering workforce (EngineeringUK, 2018), and despite the efforts of both the state and the industry, it remains one of the most male-dominated occupations. One of the main barriers for women in all male-dominated sectors, including engineering, is the persistence of ‘old-boys’ networks’ (Durbin, 2011), that is, essentially closed male-dominated networks where strategic, tacit knowledge is exchanged. Women appear to be at a disadvantage in terms of visibility, the ability to form alliances and gaining critical organisational knowledge that can lead to career progression (Greguletz  et al., 2018; Ibarra, 1993).

A very popular diversity management practice that has been used to address this issue is the formally organised women’s networks. Formal women’s networks, that can be either internal (i.e. intra-organisational) or external (i.e. inter-organisational), have been argued to provide instrumental, social and psychological support (Villesèche and Josserand, 2017). They are also argued to bolster women’s self-confidence thus contributing to retention. However, the effectiveness of women’s networks has also been repeatedly contested as they appear to lack power due to their formality (Durbin, 2015) and the fact that they might address only the symptoms of discrimination instead of the roots of the problem (Dennissen et al, 2018).

Nevertheless, despite their wide use and the critique received, the value of such networks, their ability to contribute to gender equality, and their capacity to challenge the gendered nature of both organisations and the profession itself remains a particularly under-researched area. The aim of the ‘Networked self’ study was to establish the contribution of formal internal and external women’s networks to gender equality in engineering and understand the role of human resources practitioners in their operation.

The project

The project was funded by the Vice-Chancellor’s Early Career Researcher Development Awards, 2018/19. Dr. Papafilippou, adopting a qualitative approach, conducted 48 semi-structured interviews either face-to-face or via Skype/telephone. The participants were all active in external and internal networks (if their company had one) and were recruited mostly via LinkedIn and the researcher’s personal network. The majority of women worked in the UK (44), plus one in the U.S.A. and two in Australia. Most were in the construction sector (31) although other sectors were also represented, with four in gas and oil, two in the army, one in nuclear, three in aviation, three in electronic/software engineering etc. In terms of ethnicity, the majority of the participants were white (44) and only four were from BME background. There were 10 participants at an early stage in their career, 24 mid-career and 12 seniors (up to director level).

Findings

The main contribution of internal women’s networks was the invaluable social and psychological support that they provided to the women involved. The participants, and especially those on part-time contracts, felt “silo’d” within their organisation. Through their participation in these networks, these women felt free to interact and connect socially with their female colleagues, thus enhancing their feeling of belonging to the organisations and thus their job satisfaction. Also, through participating in the network, the women in the study gradually became closer. In other words, these networks contributed towards a sense of solidarity and empowerment of the women. Other important benefits of the participation in internal networks included: the development of skills through mentoring and tailored training but also help with career progression. It needs to be noted at this point, these benefits were not accessible to all women. Unfortunately though, internal networks still appeared not to have access to power resources which would eventually allow them to achieve organisational change. More specifically, all participants admitted that no matter how hard they tried, they failed to challenge the gendered nature of their organisations as these networks did not have effective support by senior leadership and the human resources department. Any change seemed to be blocked by their line managers and gender-biased performance management practices.

External women’s networks on the other hand, helped women to (re)build their confidence and (re)establish their sense of belonging to the profession. This was especially so for those returning from maternity leave where women felt overwhelmed. External networks seemed also to play an important role in individual career progression as they helped women to enhance crucial skills, such as networking and public speaking. Also, and perhaps most importantly, they enabled women to recognise the discrimination they experienced and reach out to other, more equal and inclusive organisations, or fight for a promotion within their own organisation. What seemed to be the most important contribution of external women’s networks though, was the fact that they enabled and encouraged women to actually challenge the status quo and start reshaping the professional culture. More specifically, the participation in these networks gave the opportunity to many women to ‘build bridges’ to other professional bodies (e.g. the Institution of Engineering and Technology, the Institution of Civil Engineers) and networks, and participate actively in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), and not only policy-making. Last but not least, by sharing experiences and working together, the women started challenging the dominant gendered discourses and practices. Instead of adapting in order to fit in, they chose to reframe what an ‘engineer’, and especially a female engineer and a leader in engineering, can be.

Conclusions and implications for practice

Women’s networks, internal and external, seemed to contribute, each in its own way, to women’s wellbeing, career progression and gender equality. However, their efforts met three major obstacles: senior management, HR and line managers. The main implications for practice were:

  • Commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI): EDI policies should become an integral part of a company’s strategy and HR and senior management should listen carefully to women’s stories and respond to their requests.
  • The entire employee lifecycle should be carefully evaluated using an EDI lens to identify where and why injustices may occur and work together with the groups affected to resolve them.
  • Companies should encourage and facilitate diversity networks as they have huge potential for empowerment, retention and organisational change and make sure that their activities and comments feed directly to organisational policies, practices and strategy
  • The women in the study talked about how their exposure to the external networks highlighted the need to change the way we view leadership in engineering and also the discriminatory practices experienced within their organisations. This finding has clear and serious implications for recruitment for senior roles and, above all, performance management and career progression.

Navigating reduced hours careers: experiences of male and female executives and senior managers

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A British Academy/Leverhulme Trust funded project, led by Professor Susan Durbin, with Professor Jennifer Tomlinson (Leeds University Business School) and Stella Warren (UWE)

The Problem

The challenges of greater gender balance at senior management levels and on corporate boards are faced by businesses worldwide (Durbin, 2015). Working hours are critical to career advancement and women rather than men tend to seek a reduction in hours at career defining life course stages. Our previous research demonstrates that women face stagnating careers when they reduce their working hours (Durbin and Tomlinson 2010; 2014). However, there has been very limited research focusing upon executive/senior management careers of women and men in relation to reduced hours working.

Part-time, or reduced hours working, is the most widely utilised form of flexible working in organisations in the UK. Yet despite its widespread use – there are more than seven million part-time workers, 75% of whom are women (ONS 2018) – it is not evenly dispersed throughout occupational categories but tends to cluster in low paid, low skilled occupations. While part-time work has grown in professional occupations, the same cannot be said for managerial occupations. Indeed, in the managers, directors and senior officials occupation, less than 4% of jobs are occupied on a part-time basis (ONS 2018).

This has significant consequences for the utilization of women’s skills, pay and career opportunities across the life course. The issue of flexibility in middle management careers has been the focus of a Government Equalities Office seminar on a wider programme of research and evidence on what can be done to reduce the gender pay gap (Tomlinson 2018). The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has also recently released an authoritative ‘Mega Trends’ report on flexible working. This report lays bare the paucity of flexible jobs at a managerial level, including executive levels and cites our work (Durbin and Tomlinson, 2014) which focuses upon how part-time working can impact the careers of managers. In the context of an increased interest in workforce flexibility and flexible working arrangements that facilitate work life balance, the question of whether careers (rather than work) can be successfully navigated flexibly is an open question (Tomlinson et al. 2018).

We know from previous research that certain flexible working practices can facilitate career sustainability across the life course and particularly at critical life junctures, such as following maternity (Chung 2018). Yet while there are notable recent studies on the use of flexible work, these tend to focus exclusively on the experiences of women (Chung 2018; Young 2018), as did earlier studies (Crompton and Lyonette 2014; Durbin and Tomlinson 2010, 2014).

The Project

As researchers who specialise in women’s careers and in tackling gender inequalities in the workplace and labour market, we believe that making reduced hours working available at senior levels would enable more women to step forward into senior roles. We also believe that this opportunity should be open to men. Women’s work, especially when performed on a reduced hours basis, is under-valued and not enough women are making it into senior roles. For most women, and some men, having the opportunity to work the hours that would enable them to have a work/family balance could be key to their future prospects and benefit the wider businesses in which they work. The support of employers is key to making this happen. This research enables us to get in touch with senior men and women working on reduced hours basis and to explore why and how they reduced hours and what that means for their senior careers.

The project began in November, 2019 and is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. It departs from currently existing research and asks, with the rise in the use of flexible working arrangements at the organisational level, and a drive for more inclusive workplace cultures, what are the prospects for navigating executive and senior management careers while working reduced/part-time hours? When individuals at senior levels do work reduced hours, what are their experiences of work in terms of job quality and growth potential, and how do the experiences of reduced hours working compare and contrast between male and female executives and senior managers? Furthermore by focusing exclusively upon executives and senior managers, this research explores the experiences of organisational leaders who have reduced hours and the strategies they employ to manage a demanding position requiring leadership and visibility while working less than full time, and the extent to which they feel they can act as role models for others seeking to advance careers on a flexible basis. We address this important research gap to better understand how male and female senior managers navigate flexible careers and how gendered assumptions might impact their careers.

Our Partners

We are working with seven external partners who have offered their support to the project. All have a keen interest and take active roles in the promotion of gender equality in organisations. They know the importance of gender diversity at all levels of organisations and the business benefits this can yield. Crucially, they are able to help us to access and interview the rare and hard to reach executives and senior managers who work on a reduced hours basis, in the UK.

Flexology (flexible working specialists in the recruitment of professional part-time and flexible working roles and the design and implementation of flexible working practices); Workwell (a HR and people change consultancy, providing support in the areas of HR/people support, flexible working, project management, strategy, stakeholder management and research); Teach First (a charity that was set up to address educational disadvantage in the UK and is currently extending the uptake of job share working at senior levels); the Bristol Women in Business Charter Community Interest Company (which supports the operation of a city-wide Charter recognising and supporting progress on gender equality in city businesses). One of the goals Charter signatories commit to is the promotion and increased availability of flexible and part-time working, especially at senior levels that attract better pay and conditions; Timewise (an organisation that was founded to tackle the lack of quality part-time jobs and to encourage more organisations to open up to both men and women jobs on a flexible basis, at all levels of organisations); Fair Play South West (the women’s equality network for the South West of England, researching and consulting women on their aspirations and barriers to achieving them and campaigning for change); Moon Executive Search (undertakes executive recruitment for senior management and board level roles and other highly skilled candidates).

How the project is being conducted

The project is being conducted through virtual interviews with male and female executives and senior managers working reduced hours in organisations across the UK private sector.  Interviews began just before ‘lockdown’ (March, 2020). Through the interviews we are exploring the experiences of male and female executives and senior managers in relation to: how and at which point in their career they accessed reduced hours working; reasons for working reduced hours; the quality of their role since reducing hours; how senior managers anticipate navigating their future careers while working reduced hours; the prevalence of organisational and other forms of support, including mentoring and networking; aspirations for and the realities of further advancement since switching to reduced hours working; and the support received from their employers, as a reduced hours senior member of the organisation. Importantly, the interviews also explore the impact of the pandemic on interviewees’ careers, including working from home, their views on this new way of working and its potential future ‘normalisation’, organisation readiness for lockdown/working from home and the general impact of covid on the individual and their ability to work from home.

The project will culminate in an end of project event (September/October, 2021), involving all research participants and partner organisations, key business leaders, policy makers and groups set up to support gender balance in business. At this event, we will present the key research findings and discuss recommendations for best practice, alongside a panel of business experts and policy makers who are keen to promote the social and business benefits of reduced hours and wider policies on flexible working. This would also be of interest to and engage with those campaigning for a shorter working week as a means to improving mental and physical well-being, work-life balance and creating a better standard of life for all (e.g. Spencer 2009, 2015). And to those interested in the knock on effects of the pandemic, such as working from home and how organisations are supporting their workforces.

If you would like to know more about the project and/or would like to take part in an interview, please contact sue.durbin@uwe.ac.uk