Academic staff and the relevance of flexible working

About (English version): 

This report seeks to discover if –

  • More formal flexible work arrangements can help academic staff balance their lives

  • Entirely different approaches are needed for academic staff

  • A combination of approaches may form part of a solution for academic staff

It also tries to identify current good practice and recommend some ways in which a more balanced approach to work for all groups of academic staff could be achieved. 

Early in 2000, the UK Government launched a Work-life Balance Campaign. The campaign had several objectives, including raising employers’ awareness of the business benefits of introducing policies and practices that encourage and assist employees to achieve a better balance between work and other activities in their lives. Central to the campaign is a belief that everyone can benefit from better work-life balance practices. In other words, the Government’s contention is that good work-life balance policies should offer a win-win situation for employees and employers, leading to more motivated staff, easier recruitment, better retention and higher levels of productivity. 

There have been new areas of employment law over the last few years that have bought flexible working to the fore but there are other factors that are peculiar to higher education. A number of new strategies and key Government initiatives such as ‘The Learning Age’, the drive towards life-long learning, widening participation and access, as well as the development of foundation degrees have promoted the need to re-design key teaching and learning strategies, including how, when and where learning and teaching are delivered to students. These changes within the HE sector have had a significant impact on all staff but particularly academic staff.

The Flexible Employment Options (FEO) project was developed with the overall purpose of considering ways in which flexible working could improve the longer-term attractiveness of employment and career opportunity specifically within the HE sector. The major objective of the project was to develop employment practice that was better aligned to meet the challenges facing higher education, and which would therefore improve recruitment and retention performance and employee satisfaction. The project commenced in 2000 and has been funded by the HEFCE’s Good Management Practice programme. One of the major strengths of the FEO project lies in its application across the higher education sector, using collaborative links with colleagues from the University of Birmingham, Canterbury Christ Church University College, De Montfort University, and Staffordshire University. All of these institutions agreed to participate in pilot schemes to test out the viability of flexible working options and to co-operate with the research elements of the project.

Representatives from ACAS, HEFCE and the trades unions NATFHE and UNISON have also participated in the project via their membership of the Project Board, with an overview of the project as a whole. Another area of concern was that of academic staff and flexible working. The FEO project pilot schemes contained staff from three major categories – academic/research; professional/academic related/managerial; and administrative/support staff. The views of these three groups of staff formed the basis of the main project research report. After the questionnaires used to assess the pilot studies had been analysed, it was found that academic staff had in general, different views on flexible working to the other two main categories of staff taking part. In addition only two members of academic staff had used the opportunity to take up a flexible work option even though several academic departments took part in the pilot study. However through their comments the academic staff group as a whole made it clear that although flexibility at work per se was not a significant issue, they were generally struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance, and job satisfaction and morale were particularly low in relation to other staff groups. 

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