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,
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