A vogue term of the 1980s. Increased awareness of international competition, uncertain market conditions and the pace and scope of technological change (among other factors) appear to have led to a renewed managerial emphasis on obtaining flexibility in the use and deployment of labour, often aimed at cost-effectiveness or labour cost cutting. The growth of unemployment and labour legislation aimed at restricting union power help provide a context within which management may be able to obtain changes in existing working practices. Where greenfield site companies are being set up flexible working arrangements are usually introduced at the outset. There are in practice very few legal constraints on U.K. management's quest for flexibility.
It is usual to distinguish different kinds of flexibility, in particular functional flexibility and numerical flexibility.
Functional Flexibility: Sometimes referred to as task flexibility, this concerns breaking down traditional occupational boundaries, whether between different skilled groups or between skilled and other workers. Dual skilling (e.g. electrical and mechanical craft skills) and, less commonly, multi-skilling may be an objective of task flexibility. Similarly, production workers may be required to take on indirect tasks (e.g. quality control, cleaning of work area, maintenance) and adjust to production demands by mobility within the plant. From the workers' perspective functional flexibility may involve intensification of work and a loss of elements of job control. Associated with functional flexibility are generic job titles and harmonisation of terms and conditions of employment. See also demarcation .
Numerical Flexibility: This enables a firm to adjust rapidly to changing levels of demand by increasing or decreasing the hours worked by its employees (often referred to as "flexibility of time), or by using subcontractors to undertake work. (This last- mentioned is also known as distancing .) Traditionally overtime has been used to meet increased demand and workers may have been under-utilised in periods of low product demand, or goods have been produced for stockpiling. Numerical flexibility aims to avoid this by using atypical workers (e.g. part-time workers, temporary workers ) to meet periods of increased demand. The numbers of part-time staff or the hours they work may be increased or decreased as required and temporary workers hired and fired as employer need determines. Another way of obtaining flexibility of time is annualised hours , whereby the patterns of work of full-time regular employees may be tailored to reflect different levels of demand at different periods.
Please note: the European industrial relations glossaries were compiled between 1991 and 2003 and are not updated. For current material see the European industrial relations dictionary.