Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Stable Flexibility - Long-Term Strategic Use of Temporary Agency Workers in Sweden

Academic journal article International Journal of Action Research

Stable Flexibility - Long-Term Strategic Use of Temporary Agency Workers in Sweden

Article excerpt

The use of temporary agency workers is closely linked to the concept of numerical flexibility, entailing a need for additional staff in booms. However, previous research has also revealed a trend towards a more extensive and constant use of temporary agency workers. Even though the long-term use is not new, there is hardly any knowledge of how this transfer from short- to long-term use takes place. In this article, the exchange process between the temporary work agency and the user firm is scrutinised to explore and explain how the use of blue-collar temporary agency workers has become a long-term strategic use of the user firm's staffing strategy.

Key words: agency work, flexibility, flexible organization, labour market flexibility, staffing strategy, temporary agency workers, temporary work agency

1. Introduction

The use of temporary agency workers is closely linked to the concept of numerical flexibility, entailing a need for additional staff in booms. According to the image of 'The flexible firm' (Atkinson, 1984) numerical flexibility entails a continuous change in the number of staff to exactly match the number of staff to the number needed. This "exactly matching" implies short term changes in the number of staff. However, previous research reveals extensive long-term use of agency workers, indicating other motives besides short-term matching (cf. Purcell, Purcell, & Tailby, 2004; Stanworth & Druker, 2006; Theodore & Peck, 2002; Tijdens, van Klaveren, Houwing, van der Meer & van Essen, 2006; McKay & Markova, 2008; Elcioglu, 2010; Kalleberg & Marsden, 2005; Smith & Neuwirth, 2008).

Holst, Nachtwey and Dörre, (2010) also discern a new way of using agency workers, whereby assignments have no fixed termination date. Rather, temporary agency workers constitute a quasi-permanent part of user firms' staff, being labelled, by Holst et al. (2010), as the strategic use of agency workers. Voss et al (2013) argue that there is a trend towards a more extensive and constant use of temporary agency workers. However, even though the long-term use is not new, there is hardly any knowledge of how this transfer takes place.

The research overview indicates that there is a further need for empirical and theoretical research describing and explaining the long-term strategic use of temporary agency workers.

The aim of this article is to describe, analyse and explain the mechanisms at play when such an organizational shift from short term use of agency workers to the long-term strategic use of temporary agency workers takes place.

2. Research overview and theoretical framework

In the public debate, numerical flexibility is the motive most frequently expressed by employers in connection with using agency workers. This corresponds to Atkinson's (1984) terminology, and entails temporary agency workers being hired during periods of peak demand or booms. However, a survey of Swedish workplaces paints a somewhat different picture (Hâkansson & Isidorsson, 2007). According to that study 43 % of user firms used agency workers as a response to changes in demand, that is numerical flexibility. The majority, or 72 %, of user firms used temporary agency workers to cover for absent staff. Although the use of temporary agency workers could be seen as a flexible way of staffing, the motive for using them was in these cases not a need for additional staff. Rather, agency workers were used to maintain a stable staff level, thus the motive could be labelled numerical stability. It is worth noting that, also in the UK, numerical stability was the most frequent motive for using temporary agency workers (Hâkansson & Isidorsson, 2007). A Norwegian study also found that the stability motive for using temporary agency workers was favoured more than numerical flexibility (Nesheim, 2003). Accordingly, the conception of using agency workers in order to achieve numerical flexibility is not totally in accordance with results from research. …

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