Will flexible forms of working provide the answer to work-life balance?

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Manufacturers work in fast-moving global markets, where success is based on the capacity to provide solutions, exploit niches and respond to a growing and dynamic customer base. Innovation in new products, services and processes, investment in modern machinery and the ability to tap into new export markets are the cornerstones of competitiveness.

As manufacturers strive to do things better, a flexible and adaptable workforce is crucial to achieving this success. They are therefore seeking flexibility from their employees as employees may be seeking flexibility from their employer. Employers offering flexible forms of working can support their employees to achieve a better work-life balance, and in return employees are often more willing to be flexible for their employer.

For manufacturers flexible working has always formed part of their working arrangements. Even before the right to request flexible working was introduced for all employees manufacturers were offering a variety of flexible working practices.  Three in ten were operating part-time working for production employees, over a quarter were operating individualised hours or shifts and one in five compressed hours. Others adopted practices such as banked hours, career breaks and job sharing.

There does however come a point or a circumstance when an employer simply cannot accommodate additional flexible working practices. Some have negative perceptions about manufacturers’ attitudes to flexible working, yet our own survey data has found that management resistance is one of the least common factors limiting successful requests.  Instead the main barriers are the actual set-up of productive and an inability to source cover for employees.

The former is a manufacturing and production-specific constraint. Over time, as new technologies and processes are developed, the setup of production may fall lower down the rankings of potential employees. However, the inability to find suitable cover remains a significant challenge at a time when four in five manufacturers are struggling to recruit.This is made particularly difficult when recruiting for positions that require niche, and therefore scarce skills.

Nevertheless, flexible working practices have very much become the norm in the modern manufacturing workplace. The increased demand for highly skilled workers has led to many manufacturing employers accommodating extensive flexible working practices to retain specialist skills. In the past few years manufacturers have reported some positives in this area with seven in ten agreeing they are able to be more flexible due to the improving skill-sets of their workforce.

Manufacturers recognise that to be successful they need strategies which engage and motivate their workforce, as well as to secure buy-in for new initiatives or ways of working. For flexible working to succeed in the manufacturing workplace it needs to facilitate discussions between employers and employees which result in finding the most suitable approach.  They embed this cooperation into their wider business strategy of employee engagement, rewarded and investing in multi-skilled staff. This approach is clearly working in our industry with almost seven in ten manufacturers agreeing that the co-operative relationship between management and their workforce helps them to achieve the flexibility they both need.  Employers are using a variety of mechanisms to communicate with their workforce on a range of issues including flexible working practices. Previous EEF research has found this typically includes regular meetings, staff briefings and communication through line managers. More often than not it is a combination of these channels.What is clear is the wide range of communication practices that occur and this is in itself a reflection of how working arrangements and production practices vary across manufacturing, and that a ‘one size fits’ all approach does not always work.

Flexible working has always been, and remains a two-way street. Not only does it help employees balance their lives inside and outside of work, it also helps employers secure commitment and flexibility from their workforce. To an extent then it does support employees to achieve a greater work-life balance – what that balance is will undoubtedly differ amongst employees.

Of course work-life balance for employees does not always have to come from legislative change. Whilst manufacturers have extended approaches and adopted new policies to fit with the most recent legal changes, businesses will be looking for a stable regulatory environment. Indeed a quarter of manufacturers say that flexibility in the workforce is more difficult because of the regulatory environment. Legislative changes too often follow a ‘one size fits all’ approach which isn’t always the best solution to provide the ideal work-life balance. The majority of EEF’s members tell us that the most workable and beneficial flexible working practices are those where open and honest discussions about flexible working, and indeed work-life balance take place between an employee and their employer.



Head of Education & Skills Policy

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