Thinker's Corner

Making flexibility work by Denis MacShane & Chris Brewster (Fabian Society, 11 Dartmouth Street, London, SW1H 9BN, ISBN 0 7163 0595 X, £10). Flexibility over working hours, pay and conditions is already upon us, but how can we manage its development effectively and equitably? MacShane and Brewster discuss the benefits and drawbacks of this change in working practices and argue that, although "flexibility is the key to future prosperity", if it is forced by diktat and fear, it will not be effective and economically beneficial. The pamphlet defines flexibility as either quantitative, in terms of working time, wage and employee level, or qualitative, covering task or function and geographical location. It believes that debate hitherto has tended to be "too crude".

The authors outline the numerous benefits and problems associated with flexible working practices, and then move on to a more specific analysis of three case studies drawn from across Europe. They make interesting observatons on the new challenges to employers and unions, and conclude that the onus is on management to ensure that any change towards more flexible working practices is made to the benefit of staff. They express concern over the increased uncertainty, stress levels and lack of training opportunities for staff not employed full time.

MacShane and Brewster's call for an EU Charter for Flexibility similar to the Social Chapter is interesting. They believe this could develop a social and practical impetus to the notion of flexibility that uses the lessons learnt from member countries' experiences. Employers, they claim, should place greater emphasis on building up human capital. The pamphlet offers a romantic vision of people exercising choices over whether to "embrace flexibility", but there is a lack of detail as to what "significant changes in the social welfare system" would be and how they would be funded.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, And is there honey by the Tees?