Workplace flexibility offers greater security

We need an employment model that acknowledges the reality of risk, uncertainty and change.

It was a typical HR conference. The luminaries of the profession told the audience there is no substitute for honest conversations with workforces, even if the HR professionals concerned have to acknowledge they do not know many of the answers. Whether putting jobs at risk or negotiating pay, don't fail to be honest and transparent, they said. These are the preconditions to that Holy Grail of employee engagement.

This is one of the apple-pie-and-motherhood assertions that abound in HR, and with which no one can disagree. Yet in both the private and public sector, employee engagement scores sag. There are articles in the press, mocking HR's attachment to non-contestable truths, and most of you read them in protest at their unfairness but with recognition of the truth of some of the points. The time has come to fight back.

I am becoming increasingly sceptical about the load employee engagement is expected to bear. For all its good intentions it smacks of a top-down technocratic approach to people in which all that is required to win them over is engagement. 'We know that enlisting your enthusiasm and commitment is important, so what we are going to do is to engage,' runs the proposition. 'We are going to communicate, encourage feedback and regularly monitor what you think of management's efforts. And we will listen. And we will respond in a spirit of honesty and transparency, even if we don't know the answers.' QED - employee engagement.

Cynical workforces are keenly aware they are being engaged with to agree to something they may not like - and while that might mitigate the impact of change around them it does not alter the fact of it.

HR needs to move to a new employment paradigm - one that acknowledges the reality of risk, uncertainty and change. The pressure on organisations to restructure and change is intensifying. The need for contractual flexibility as they reshape and restructure is obvious.

Thus I present the case for 'flexi-security' (or flexicurity), combining real and increased flexibility with real and effective security. On the one hand there is the need to embed in the employment contract genuine flexibilities - even to assert that job definitions and other terms and conditions of employment may have to alter as economic conditions change.

Ton Wilthagen, of Holland's Tilburg University - the father of flexicurity - shocked an audience at The Work Foundation recently when he said redundancy payments should be phased out or even outlawed. What he proposes instead is a threefold bargain in exchange for contractual flexibility. First the funds spent on redundancy should be spent on training, learning and career development. Individuals should have e-dossiers that are regularly updated and matched via the internet with employment opportunities both inside the firm and within the sector. People should be able to see what opportunities their increased skills can offer them and be encouraged to think of building careers rather than holding and defending a job.

Second, he proposes moving from unemployment insurance to income insurance. Organisations should pay into insurance schemes that allow employees as much as 90% of their income for anything up to two years while they retrain or move between jobs. And third, large organisations should offer employment guarantees. Smaller organisations could create city or regional federations to do the same thing. National government should support all three components with a national flexicurity system.

It is a hugely attractive vision:employees would have real power. HR conversations would become genuinely honest; engagement would be a two-way process founded on greater equality; and insurance systems would handle the reality of risk. Greater flexibility, greater security - any takers?

- Will Hutton is executive vice chair at The Work Foundation