Staffing Britain’s National Health Service is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week maelstrom of intense demand for labour and high-speed logistical decisions. A job as one of its near-300,000 nursing staff can be unpredictable, with last-minute rostering changes and irregular shift patterns making it hard to plan life outside the ward.
But what if you could redesign the system to make it easier for staff without patients losing out? That’s what Birmingham Women and Children’s Hospital is about to find out in a pilot project, in which 120 staff trialled a “team-based” rostering approach. Three wards will appoint “lead teams” of eight or nine staff, each speaking for four or five colleagues, who will design a roster that works for as many people as possible based on conversations with nurses about their “requirements and preferences.”
The project is run by Timewise, a British organisation that promotes flexible working. In the case of the project with the NHS, flexibility means negotiating more predictable nurses’ hours so they can manage their lives. In the case of retailer John Lewis, which has also worked with Timewise, it’s about giving managers in branches more freedom to deploy their staff the way they want.
But whatever flexibility might look like in a given sector, part of the point, said Timewise co-founder Emma Stewart, is to widen the pool of talent an employer has access to. And Stewart thinks making good-quality jobs in the public or private sector more adaptable to an individual’s circumstances at the point of hire could be part of the answer to helping workers progress when they’re trapped in flexible but underpaid or insecure gig economy jobs.
“We’ve got two ends of the labour market here that we need to look at,” Stewart said, “One is we need to look at how to make existing flexible jobs good [improving the lot of unskilled agency workers, app-based delivery drivers and the like]. At the other end, it’s how to make more good jobs open to flexibility.”
“There’s been a lot of attention, particularly with the Taylor Review [a government-commissioned inquiry into British working practices] on the gig economy side,” Stewart continued, “But ultimately, we know that less than 10% of good quality jobs – which we reference as £20,000 [full-time wage, $28,000 USD] or above – do have any flexible or part-time working arrangements at the point of hire.”
“The point for us is it’s about understanding what are the cultural barriers and the operational barriers in a particular sector or area that means that talent is not coming into that sector, staying in that sector, and progressing and then being able to respond accordingly to that,” said Stewart.
Research the company carried out with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2016 into the status of parents, the elderly, and disabled people in Britain found that 202,300 “well-qualified” people from these categories were living in poverty. Overall, it concluded that almost two million people had the qualifications necessary for a good quality job, but were trapped in part-time work under that pay level or were unemployed.
“Without a quality flexible jobs market they can go to, many employees will be getting ‘stuck’ in their current inflexible jobs, or even trading down to get the flexibility they need,” the report read, “Businesses lose out because people’s skills are not being used to the full, and they may even lose valuable employees completely.”
Stewart is right that in the UK, the recent focus of public debate has been on the status of workers on the bottom rungs of a precarious jobs market. Coverage of the government’s response this month to the aforementioned Taylor Review focused on its plans to consult on strengthening employee protections in the gig economy.
Meanwhile, much of the discussion around how best to prepare workers for future shifts centres on how to provide skills to those who don’t have them – as Stewart puts it, governments are developing policies to increase the supply of skilled workers, but not demand-side policies to make sure those who want flexibility and quality have jobs to go to.
There are signs that, around the world, industries are starting to see a need for flexibility in jobs that have traditionally been more regimented. In Germany, for example, metalworkers represented by Europe’s biggest union have won the right to take a two-year period of 28-hour weeks.
While policymakers search for solutions to those left on the fringes of gainful employment, they should pay attention to experiments like Timewise’s; opening up old jobs could be part of the solution to new problems.
(Picture credit: Pixabay)