Retail giant Amazon has recently announced the introduction of term-time-only working contracts, says Steve Herbert. Is this the next level for flexible working practices?

Flexible working is a topic that has long dominated much of the media commentary around the British workplace, and last month’s announcement by online retailer Amazon regarding the introduction of “term-time” working contacts may well represent one of the more significant developments in this long-running story.

Flexible working evolution

Before we look at the Amazon proposal, it might be useful to understand just how far the concept of working flexibility has evolved in recent years.

In the 1980s the concept of “flexible working” was very different indeed.  The vast majority of employers expected all their employees to undertake a regular 35-hour working week pattern, usually described as the “9 to 5”.  If any flexibility was allowed (and often it wasn’t), then it was usually little more than a casual agreement between line manager and employee to allow an employee to leave work a little early on certain days of the week in exchange for starting earlier or working through a lunch break.  Few employers would have contemplated going any further, and few employees would have expected them to.

Yet the British workplace has evolved significantly in the decades that followed.  The introduction of email and internet options into day-to-day business activities has made remote working both more practical and acceptable, enabling improvements to the employment offering to help attract and retain quality employees.

This significant employment shift happened just in time, as the arrival of Covid-19 – and its associated lockdowns – resulted in millions of employees being forced into home working.  Many have already proven beyond all reasonable doubt that they can be just as productive at home as in the office.

Whilst the pandemic lockdowns are now in the past, many employees continue to crave that flexibility, and employers are often willing to offer it given the ongoing candidate shortage across many sectors.  Some employers are now going even further, with a four-day working week starting to become a reality.

Such flexibilities are understandably attractive to workers.  Aside from the obvious appeal of less rigid working hours, flexibility also enables millions of working families to save money by commuting less (or at least in off-peak hours) or avoiding the very significant costs associated with childcare in the United Kingdom.

Too good to be true?

Yet there is a problem that is so often overlooked in the media coverage of the new – more flexible – working world.

Valuable and attractive as these improved working flexibilities are, they often don’t extend beyond those elements of the workforce who work in largely clerical and/or managerial jobs.  Millions of workers – for instance, those in hospitality, construction, healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, and retail – still need to attend their physical place of work to undertake their duties.  It follows that these sectors may currently look less appealing to prospective and existing employees.

So how can employers in these sectors best respond?

Term-time working contracts

Amazon’s latest announcement may well present one potential answer. 

The online retail giant recently announced a new type of contract available across their workforce.  These new contracts are described as “term-time” contracts and are designed to allow grandparents, parents, and guardians of school-age children the chance to work only during the academic year, thus avoiding the challenges of sourcing and paying for childcare throughout the school holidays.

The contract guarantees the employee time off work for six weeks over the summer holidays, and two weeks for each of the Christmas and Easter holidays also.  The retailer has stated that participation in such contracts won’t impact the other benefits they receive, such as life assurance and private medical cover.

Amazon has also announced a new flexible, part-time, contract of 80 hours a month, which allows the employee to “pick and mix” their working shifts around family commitments.

A wider appeal?

These steps are important, and might well be considered by other employers and sectors.

For, theoretically at least, term-time working can extend across all sectors and job roles, enabling many more working parents to continue their career whilst avoiding the worst excesses of childcare costs. This is sure to be of great interest to many employees and candidates.

More questions than answers?

Yet the Amazon release is rather short on detail, and there are plenty of practical questions for employers to consider before taking a similar approach to the online retailer.  Just some of the potential questions are listed below:

  • Will pay be based on hours worked in the relevant pay period, or will the annual salary be “smoothed” and paid in equal instalments?
  • Whilst benefits will continue to be offered, it is not immediately clear how they will be calculated. Will payments to pension and salary-related benefits be based on a full year’s “notional” full-time salary, or the (presumably much reduced) part-time salary?
  • Will those on “term time” contracts also be eligible for additional holiday entitlement, and if so, must that also be taken during the school holiday periods?
  • How will this change impact other employees? Those on the more usual full-time contracts could perhaps be prevented from taking leave at popular times to ensure there are enough workers when their “term-time” colleagues are all absent.
  • What impact would a term-time contract have on the employee’s promotion prospects?

And perhaps most importantly,

  • What guarantees are given so that the employee can return to a full-time contract when childcare responsibilities cease to be a challenge?

Watch this space!

In conclusion, the Amazon term-time working contracts could well be a huge boost to the many sectors – and millions of employees – that are currently prevented from engaging with flexible working practices.

That said, there are plenty of questions yet to be resolved, so the savvy employer may choose to watch the developments at Amazon closely before committing to such a plan.

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Steve Herbert is Wellbeing & Benefits Director at Partners&.

 

 

 

 

Amelia Brand is the Editor for HRreview, and host of the HR in Review podcast series. With a Master’s degree in Legal and Political Theory, her particular interests within HR include employment law, DE&I, and wellbeing within the workplace. Prior to working with HRreview, Amelia was Sub-Editor of a magazine, and Editor of the Environmental Justice Project at the University College London, writing and overseeing articles into UCL’s weekly newsletter. Her previous academic work has focused on philosophy, politics and law, with a special focus on how artificial intelligence will feature in the future.