Time off is the new money

There aren't too many people who would turn down the opportunity to work fewer hours, but would you do it for less pay? Tough times across the Tasman are leading to firms asking IT workers to trade pay for time off.

There aren't too many people who would turn down the opportunity to work fewer hours, but would you do it for less pay?

Tough times across the Tasman are leading to firms asking IT workers to trade pay for time off. If your employer has no money for pay rises, and you can afford to live on your current salary, why not work a shorter working week, a nine-day fortnight or gain an extra week's holidays?

The Australian Financial Review cites 176 local Accenture workers accepting a sabbatical with six months or a year on 20% pay. The policy works by cutting costs for the employer. It avoids the problem of keeping staff busy during down times and leaves a pool of talent for the organisation to call on when business picks up. Fine for the employer, but how about staff? The same publication also cites a dramatic rise in union membership at Deloitte and other large consultancies from those not willing to accept harsh cost-cutting moves.

In New Zealand trade-offs for shorter weeks appear not to be taking hold, but flexibility is increasingly common in IT and other sectors.

While a 35- hour week is the norm in France and is increasingly the demand of Australian unions, Kiwis work longer weeks. The Employers and Manufacturer’s Association says the average working week is 38.56 hours, which contrasts interestingly with the “45 hours or more” claimed by the Engineers’ Union (EPMU).

EMA spokesman Peter Tritt says flexible hours are a “common sense” approach, used where there are seasonal fluctuations in sectors like agriculture and road maintenance, though increasingly people are negotiating “non-standard” contracts like four-day working weeks and extended leave, he says.

Tritt brands current government and union concerns over stress and overwork as “the latest fad”. He claims working hours are “pretty steady", while the unions say the working week is growing.

The Council of Trades Unions runs a "Get a Life" campaign to encourage people to keep work hours in check, while Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) gives high profile to its "Work-Life Balance" programme, which features case studies from organisations like British Telecom, plus others, claiming such policies bring cost savings and higher profits.

The DTI says a better work-life balance benefits employers by maximising available labour, makes employees feel valued, boosts loyalty and motivation, increases productivity, reduces absenteeism, boosts an employer’s reputation and helps firms keep their staff.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) this month reported that getting the right policy balance between work and family life "will provide a wide range of benefits to society. Employment will rise; families will have a more secure source of income; gender equality will be strengthened; and child development promoted.”

Others suggest we might have to work a little harder to catch up to our neighbours. ITANZ chief executive Jim O’Neill says if New Zealand is to catch up with other economies, we “have to work a bit harder” to increase productivity. Taking time off is “not conducive” to that.

He balances this view by noting that the IT industry is good at letting people take time off when they need to. “People in IT know they work when required and they play hard when the time is okay."

NZ Defence Force CIO Ron Hooton says he and his senior IT staffers rarely work less than 50 hours a week. “When we are approaching key delivery points, the workload can become very heavy and the hours extensive,” he says.

Whether this is “acceptable” Hooton says depends on the employee and the real issue is how challenged someone is by the work.

But he claims the NZDF follows “good employer” practices, with flexible work practices being options. Nobody has approached him NZDF about wanting them, but he says they would be considered.

ASB Bank is not trading off pay for time like in Australia, but Heathcote says it is thinking about a time when population trends may force the bank to employ more older workers who may not want to work full-time.

ASB IT recruiter Rachel Heathcote says some staff work part-time, which is arranged on a case by case basis.

The bank claims “family friendly” polices like six weeks' maternity pay, time off for dads and for children’s sports coaches and is looking at offering more flexibility in the future.

The ASB says its staff are expected to have a life outside work and would be “concerned” if Heathcote worked the 50-60 hours a week she used to, when working for a recruitment agency. The bank, for example, gave her unpaid leave to stand for the Labour Party at the general election.

Trudi McNaughton, executive director of the Equal Opportunities Trust, says the IT industry is complex. Staff find it difficult to pull themselves away from work and some workplaces have peak workloads, she says. But they need to give staff time in lieu as soon as possible afterwards.

McNaughton says staff seeing bosses work 100 hours a week at some organisations is “career limiting” as it puts them off from wanting to climb up the ladder. If employers want to keep their staff they must also realise more men want to spend time with their families, younger people often have a desire to travel and an ageing population will mean staff needing time off to care for sick relatives.

“Firms have to prepare for long periods of unpaid leave, so they don’t lose their staff,” McNaughton says.

Greenwood is Computerworld's human resources reporter. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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