Give and Take: Families' perceptions and experiences of flexible work in New Zealand

Give and Take: Families' perceptions and experienc…
01 Sep 2008

This report presents research the Families Commission undertook in 2007/08 to explore how flexible working arrangements can best support family wellbeing and what the barriers and success factors relating to take-up of flexible working arrangements are.

A mixed method qualitative and quantitative approach was adopted using 11 focus groups, 15 case study narratives and a 15 minute telephone survey of 1000 people.

The findings revealed a range of impacts that varying degrees of workplace flexibility can have on families, and explored how these differ over a range of family types. Flexible work arrangements offer significant benefits for individuals, families and businesses. A range of barriers to taking up flexible working arrangements were revealed. These include:

  • perceived and anticipated attitudes of employers 
  • concerns that using flexible working arrangements would indicate a lack of seriousness and commitment to work, and thus restrict career progression
  • workplace cultures that did not support the use of flexible work arrangements
  • financial pressure restricting the use of reduced hours
  • lack of awareness about available arrangements.

The comprehensive nature of this study has provided the Families Commission with a robust evidence-base for developing targeted advocacy to support families to make choices about balancing their involvement in paid work and family life.


The Families Commission commissioned this 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 take-up of these arrangements
  •  the current barriers to access to and take-up of flexible work and what will remove them.

In particular, the project focuses on the following questions:

1. What flexible work arrangements do adult family members have available to them, which arrangements are used, and why?

2. What is the impact on the family of different degrees and types of workplace flexibility?

3. What flexible work arrangements would family members like to be available, both now and in future, and why?

4. What are the barriers to accessing or taking up flexible work arrangements? 5. What might improve access to and take-up of quality flexible work arrangements?


The Commission contracted UMR Research to conduct 11 focus groups and 15 case-study interviews with members of various families, and then to test some of the findings with a focus group and three interviews with employers. The final step of the project was a national survey (n=1,000) to explore the prevalence of the findings of the qualitative research across the population. The primary emphasis of the project was the qualitative reseach which focussed on families experiences of flexible working arrangements and their impact on family life. The quantitative stage was a much smaller part of the research project and was undertaken to provide some population estimates of trends found in the qualitative stage. This work was also designed to not duplicate quantitative research undertaken by the Department of Labour. This report describes the key findings of the research.

Key Results

Key findings from the research were:

  • Flexible work arrangements had various positive effects on families, including: increased opportunities for families to spend quality time together; enabling them to meet their care responsibilities while maintaining their participation in the paid workforce; and reducing stress.
  • The survey asked respondents in paid work whether they had access to various flexible work arrangements. Some 88 percent could take time off occasionally to attend special events, while 71 percent said they could do this regularly. Seventyeight percent could leave work early to pick up family members, and 73 percent could start late in order to drop family members off. More than three-quarters of respondents (77 percent) could move their lunch break in order to attend a family commitment, and 77 percent could take time off during school holidays. In order to have extra time off at another time, 69 percent could work longer hours, and 44 percent could work from home.
  • Three-quarters of respondents rated their work as having ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ of flexibility. Of those respondents who reported a lot of flexibility, 88 percent declared that they were satisfied with their work-life balance, compared with 52 percent of those who said that they had little or no flexibility. Of those who worked 20 or fewer hours per week, 91 percent were satisfied with their work-life balance, compared with 58 percent of those working more than 50 hours.
  • Perceptions of what constituted flexible work were sometimes different from the definitions of quality flexible work used in this study. Some people’s understanding of ‘flexible work’ included arrangements which were actually statutory entitlements (such as sick or bereavement leave) or were different from standard arrangements (such as a later, but fixed, starting time), but did not provide them with much true flexibility.
  • For some families, flexible arrangements such as working from home came at a cost. There was some evidence of tension between the benefits of using such arrangements and disadvantages such as the extension of the work day, spillover of work into home life and a constant feeling of juggling work and family responsibilities. While individual respondents clearly believed the benefits of their chosen arrangements outweighed any disadvantages, for some families it came at a cost.
  • Those without access to flexible work arrangements found it more difficult to spend time with their families, and parents were often unable to attend family events, resulting in disappointment for both them and their children. Families in the qualitative research described feeling pressured and stressed, with little time to complete everyday tasks. The quantitative research supported these findings, with those lacking access to flexible work more likely to report feeling as if they were juggling priorities, that they had missed out on family activities and that their family time was under pressure.
  • Respondents in both the qualitative and quantitative research often assumed that flexible work arrangements would involve a cut in their income. For this reason, many respondents said they could not afford to take up flexible work arrangements, even if they had been available.
  • ‘Decisions’ about flexible work arrangements were not often formally discussed within the family. More general work arrangements were typically decided jointly, often when a first child was expected. A key finding was that many people chose their work to fit around their family responsibilities, with the perceptions of the flexibility of possible jobs having a significant influence over the occupations chosen.
  • Respondents showed commitment and dedication to their work, and a strong sense of obligation to ‘pull their weight’ and fulfil the expectations of managers and colleagues. Many respondents indicated that they felt guilty about taking time away from work. Flexible work was viewed as a give-and-take arrangement between employers and employees, both parties seeing such work arrangements as signifying a healthy and trusting relationship.
  • Many family members indicated that, in addition to their current flexible arrangements, they also wanted more flexibility in working hours, and the ability to take leave to look after children during school holidays and to work from home. Most respondents were realistic about the drawbacks of these arrangements and whether they would ‘fit’ with the needs of the businesses that employed them. The arrangements people wanted and needed changed as the profile of their family changed (for example, as children reached school age).
  • Barriers to the use of flexible work arrangements included their unavailability in particular workplaces; workplace cultures that did not support their use (for example, perceived and anticipated negative attitudes from employers, managers and co-workers); concerns that using such work arrangements would hamper career progression; the perception that flexible work involved a reduction in income; the perception that flexible work arrangements were available only to highly valued employees; and perception that flexible work arrangements were not suitable or possible in particular occupations or industries.
  • Almost half of respondents in the survey (49 percent) agreed with the statement ‘people who use flexible work arrangements progress more slowly in their careers’, with 19 percent of respondents strongly agreeing.
  • There was evidence that respondents’ experiences varied depending on their incomes. The survey indicated that perceptions of flexibility at work were inversely related to personal income. However, this is likely to be due to the influence of parttime work, with two-thirds (66 percent) of those who worked 20 or fewer hours per week reporting a lot of flexibility. The trend reversed for those in the highest income categories, with 38 percent of those with household incomes over $100,000 saying that they had a lot of flexibility.
  • Those reporting lower personal income were more likely to report choosing their particular career or putting their career on hold to look after family, and less likely to report that they had missed family occasions because of work commitments.
  • There were differences in the work experiences of New Zealand European, Māori and Pasifika workers, especially regarding working patterns and employers’ reactions to requests for flexible work. However, because of the small numbers involved (n=150 for both Mäori and Pasifika respondents), care should be taken with these results, as confounding factors such as occupation and type of workplace could also be at play here, and so findings that look like a pattern of difference by ethnicity may in fact be a result of other factors.
  • Employed Māori and Pasifika men were more likely to be working long hours, while employed Māori men were also more likely to be working 20 or fewer hours a week, suggesting a polarisation of hours. Pasifika respondents were less likely than other respondents to work 20 or fewer hours a week, and more likely to be working shifts. Employed Māori and Pasifika respondents were more likely to have encountered negative reactions from employers about flexible work arrangements, and more of these respondents reported that they would be nervous about asking their employer for flexible work.
  • There were significant gender differences in work patterns and perceptions of flexible work. A third (32 percent) of women who were in paid employment reported that they worked 20 or fewer hours per week, compared with just two percent of men; and women were more likely to agree with statements that involved putting family needs before personal or work responsibilities. Gender also had a small impact on access to flexible working arrangements, with women less likely to have access to flexible work arrangements with the exception of ‘taking time off occasionally to go to special events involving family’.
  • In general, employees caring for children were slightly more likely to have access to most of the flexible work arrangements than employees caring for sick, disabled or elderly people.
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