New research shows that up to a million people are on so-called “zero-hour” contracts – whereby part-time employees aren’t guaranteed set hours in any particular week. 

This is something of a surprise to the abacus wielders in Westminster, who reckoned only a quarter of that number were on the contracts, but a survey by the fine people of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (the BMA of HR) reckons that it is nearly a million.

There is a debate about this, with unions and poverty charities on one side, employers (including many charities) on the other; and at the core of the debate is flexibility.

Flexibility is very much the watchword of the modern employment zeitgeist – and I’m very much in favour of it. Provided  it is truly flexibility and not just exploitation wearing a cloak of zeitgeist-esque respectability.

Now I’m not an expert in employment law or terms and conditions – although I have dabbled, and have helped with getting new sets of terms and conditions accepted by a sizeable proportion of a workforce every now and then, and I am an expert in employee engagement and organisational development – and I know that truly flexible employment packages are ticks in those particular boxes.

Young, single people just setting out on their working lives are likely to want as much money as possible, and may be quite happy to forego a week or two of holiday to get a bigger number at the bottom right hand corner of their payslip.

More mature workers, with family commitments, may want more in the way of flexible time, and can afford to take a hit on the wage if they can get more generous leave or working from home.

All the while there needs to be balance – meeting the employer’s needs while fulfilling the needs of the employee. Having a flexible, home-based workforce doesn’t tend to be much use for manufacturers or bus companies, I would have thought; you need people operating those lathes and driving buses, after all. Call centres need people on the end of the phones (although do they really need to be in a aluminium-sided shed on an industrial park on the outskirts of a post-industrial city?).

In other words, there is work to be done and employers need people to do it in order to deliver what they need to do.

The trick with achieving this balance is to get both sides to understand what they want and need out of the process; this in turn requires really good communication channels both up and down the organisation.

So while I actually did write the book on a new set of T&Cs once, that wasn’t what swung it when it came to the ballot; what swung it was a really good quality conversation between the employer and employees before the proposals were even put into that book; followed by a series of equally good conversations at every level of the organisation to explain the benefits and drawbacks, address the concerns of managers and workers, and an organisational understanding of why this was the best for everyone.

It’s not easy, and can fall down spectacularly when managers forget to manage and indulge in the old affiliative behaviour (“look what they are doing to us”, when it should be “this is what’s happening and why”), but when it works it can deliver that level and quality of flexibility that really is win-win for everyone.

I can see the benefits of zero-hour contracts (to both sides, if sides have to be taken) and I can see the dangers (again to both sides; exploitation of the workers and brand damage for the employers, for example); what is required to ensure the benefits are realised and the dangers avoided is a really good quality conversation. 

If you’re in an organisation where flexibility is seen as the way forward, maybe ask yourself – is it flexibility, or something else? And ask yourself what conversation have you had about it?