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Recherche et société

(Re)assessing flexibility

Communication technologies have turned working methods and the enterprise culture upside down, but they are only tools. The question is how and why to use them.

Flexibility at work takes various forms - variable working hours, telework, sub-contracting, atypical statuses - and is affecting a growing number of sectors. However, a suitable legislative and social framework is badly needed for this new flexibility. The researchers working on the Flexcot project are taking a detailed look at the problems involved.

Flexibility allows elasticity in time and space. It
alters contractual relationships and production

methods. It upsets the social consultation process and the enterprise culture. Managers regard it as a vital management tool, while the unions see it as a step backwards where social conditions are concerned.

Is it a boon or a bane? The partners involved in the Flexcot project have analysed the combined effects of technologies and flexibility in four sectors: banking, building and civil engineering, newspapers and publishing, and health. 24 case studies were carried out in six countries (Belgium, France, Italy, United Kingdom, Denmark, Spain).

According to Patricia Vendramin, of the Fondation Travail-Université, the project coordinator, 'The aim was to observe the trend in working practices and contractual relationships between employers and workers. By highlighting current trends, we have attempted to identify certain key issues for the future of work'.

The trend towards fragmentation

What are the trends? The services offered to firms and individuals (maintenance, repairs, deliveries; information centres, etc.) are accessible (virtually) around the clock. To become more flexible, firms subcontract, work in networks, set up subsidiaries, and make use of part-?time working. 'There is now a trend towards fragmentation of firms which is affecting sectors that were traditionally highly regulated, such as banking. Franchising and the externalisation of on-line services makes it possible to get round collective agreements and employ outside service providers with less permanent contracts and working arrangements.'

In all the countries examined, flexibility varies according to the activities concerned. In the building and civil engineering sector there is often two-speed flexibility - beneficial for those who work in the design offices with flexible working hours that they themselves control, but detrimental to those who work on building sites. Where the daily press is concerned, the obligation to wrap things up at the last minute and cover a considerable amount of territory entails greater use of freelance journalists at various strategic points, while the editorial core is getting smaller and concentrates on management and coordination tasks.

Similar technologies, different effects

According to Patricia Vendramin, 'Technology is a medium. The question is how to use it.' She quotes the example of a British medical call centre. Three days a week, 12 hours a day, highly qualified nurses answer questions by telephone. These motivated individuals work in a climate of confidence and responsibility, without binding productivity standards or niggling controls. Thirty-six hours a week represents full-time working. 'This particularly positive experiment is illuminating. On the other hand, in other fields, five hours a day working in remote information centres is regarded as the maximum that is physically bearable and the people who work there do not stay very long. In the case studies carried out a comparison between a financial call centre and this medical help line shows that different human resource management scenarios are possible with one and the same technology.'

Another finding that has emerged from these field studies is that staffing is kept to a minimum and work is intensifying. The time spent at work is 100% working time.

Food for thought

The management of the economy is changing and in all the European countries labour law - and hence social protection - is out of step with the reality of working life. More and more workers are 'non-standard', and flexibility on economic grounds combined with technological progress still takes very little account of individuals' wishes and quality of life.

This is why Flexcot researchers are suggesting a number of avenues which public authorities and social partners could usefully explore. They stress the need to bring social legislation (such as regulation of sub-contracting and distance working, or new forms of employment contract) up to date at a time when career paths are becoming increasingly complex, with career breaks, changes of status, time spent working abroad, etc. They are suggesting to trade unions that they should take the initiative in terms of cooperation on flexible work practices and better correlate the protection of collective and individual interests.(1) They also want to increase employers' awareness of - among other things - the loss of the identifying and social dimensions which form the basis for the corporate culture and a company's self-image.

(1) In the Netherlands, for example, part-time working arrangements have been negotiated on the basis of the wishes of certain men and women to adopt this formula.


Flexible Work Practices and Communication Technology (Flexcot)


Targeted Socio-Economic Research (TSER)

Patricia Vendramin
Unité de recherche Travail & Technologies, Fondation Travail-Université,
Namur, Belgique
Fax : +33-81-725128
E-mail : pvendramin@

-Unité de recherche 'Travail & Technologies', Fondation Travail-Université (FTU), Namur, Belgium (coordinator)
-Centre for Urban and Rural Development Studies (CURDS), University of Newcastle, United Kingdom
-Laboratoire des Sciences de l'Information et de la Communication (LabSIC), Université de Paris Nord, Villetaneuse, France
-Fondazione Pietro Seveso, Milan, Italy

Associated Partners
- Centre de télé-information, Aarhus, Denmark
- Fondation d'études sociales sur le travail, Valencia, Spain

With flexibility, work is becoming more intense. The time spent at work is now 100% working time.