Making it work: the impacts of flexible working arrangements on New Zealand families.

AuthorFursman, Lindy


The demand for "quality flexible work" is increasing, both in New Zealand and internationally. However, there has been limited research in New Zealand on the family factors that influence the amount or type of flexibility needed to support families in different circumstances, or on the impacts that the use of flexible work arrangements can have on family life. This article is based on the results of research the New Zealand Families Commission undertook in 2007/08, which explored how flexible working arrangements can best support family wellbeing and the barriers and success factors relating to the take-up of flexible work. A mixed method approach was adopted, comprising 11 focus groups, 15 case study interviews, and a 15-minute telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,000 people. Findings included the identification of a range of positive impacts that access to flexible work arrangements have for families, and the barriers to the use of flexible working arrangements. The study also found that many people choose their work to fit around family responsibilities. This article provides a summary of the research, with a focus on the findings that relate to the impact of flexible work on family life.


Both in New Zealand and internationally the demand for flexible work is increasing. This trend is driven by major changes to the labour market, as well as social and demographic changes, and is likely to continue as more people engage in further education and training, more women take up paid work, the number of sole-parent families increases, skill shortages grow, and the retirement age is extended. The implementation of the Employment Relations (Flexible Working Arrangements) Amendment Act 2007 in New Zealand is also drawing attention to the importance of flexible work for government, employers, employees and families. As a result of the Act, employees who are responsible for the care of another person and have been working for their employer for six months or more are able to request a flexible working arrangement.(l) Employers have a duty to consider such requests and respond to them within three months.

Research was undertaken by the New Zealand Families Commission to fill knowledge gaps about the types of flexible work arrangements that support family wellbeing, and factors influencing take-up of these arrangements. The research provided an opportunity to explore flexible work from a families' perspective, and aimed to contribute to debate about the most effective ways to help families access the flexible working conditions they need.2


Flexible work allows people to make changes to the hours or times they work, and where they work. It helps people organise their careers to accommodate other commitments, and to manage transitions in and out of the workforce. For flexible work to be described as "quality", these changes must not adversely affect income, career progression, availability of scheduled leave or access to desirable employment for those who take it up. For an arrangement to be considered truly flexible it must provide the employee with the means to manage his or her work while managing other commitments, and without adversely affecting the business. In addition, "quality flexible work" provides benefits for both employees and employers. Benefits for employees may include increased opportunities for families to spend "quality time" together and greater ease for family members to combine paid work and family responsibilities, while benefits for employers include addressing skills shortages and increased staff retention and loyalty.


The Families Commission conducted the project to explore families' experiences of flexible work arrangements and their impact on family life. The key aims for the project were to gather information on:

* the types of flexible work arrangements that support families, and factors influencing the take-up of these arrangements

* the current barriers to access and take-up of "quality flexible work", and what will improve access and take-up of flexible work arrangements that support family wellbeing.

In particular, the project was designed to gather information to answer the following research questions:

* What flexible work arrangements do adult family members have available to them, which arrangements are successfully used, and why are these arrangements used?

* What is the impact on the family of varying degrees of workplace flexibility?

* What flexible work arrangements would family members like to be available, both for now and future use, and why are these arrangements desired?

* What are the barriers to accessing and/or taking up flexible work arrangements?

* What might improve genuine access to and take-up of, and remove barriers to, "quality flexible work" arrangements that support families?

This article provides a summary of the research findings from the project, with a focus on the findings that relate to the impact of flexible work on family life.


To address the research questions, a mixed method using qualitative and quantitative approaches was used, with each stage building on information gathered from the previous stage. Eleven focus groups were conducted with representatives from families with dependent children, elderly family members or family members with disabilities, and 15 ease studies of a diverse group of families with caring responsibilities were completed.3 These stages of the research enabled us to explore the influences that affect people's decisions to take up flexible work arrangements, and to identify issues that are important to families as they balance paid work and family responsibilities. The focus groups and case studies were conducted in a range of rural and urban locations in New Zealand. In order to provide a counterpoint to the views of employees, a focus group of employers who run small businesses and three in-depth interviews of employers based in medium and large businesses were conducted.

The final stage of the research comprised a nationally representative quantitative survey of 1,000 "family representatives" (4) aged 18 years or older. All respondents had to be in paid work or have a partner who lived with them in paid work. Fifty-five percent of the survey sample were women and 45% were men, and a range of ethnicities were represented in the sample: New Zealand European (77%), Maori (15%), Pacific peoples (15%) and Asian (7%).

The primary emphasis of the project was the qualitative research, which focused on families' experiences of flexible work arrangements and their impact on family life. The quantitative stage was then undertaken to provide population estimates of some of the trends found in the qualitative research, as well as to assess the levels of access to, and use of, flexible work arrangements.

Given the small sample sizes in this project, and because the survey did not return reliable data on industry or occupation, it is not possible to determine the full influence of occupational factors, nor can industry and occupation be statistically controlled for. Similarly, because of the small numbers involved, results exhibiting variations by ethnicity and income should be treated with caution.


Table 1 shows that most of the people surveyed had access to at least some kinds of flexible work, with 88% of the sample able to take time off occasionally to go to special events, and 77% able to do this regularly. Varying start and finish times were among the most common flexible work arrangements, with 78% of respondents able to leave work early to pick up family members, and 65% of respondents using this arrangement regularly. Slightly fewer survey respondents (73%) could start work late in order to drop other family members off, with 60% of respondents doing this.

More than three-quarters of survey respondents (77%) could move their lunch-break in...

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