There has never been a better time to think about workplace flexibility. It’s a great way to run a business and cater for each and every member of your team. But before we dive into why workplace flexibility is a good idea, let’s explore what workplace flexibility is as a concept.
Workplace flexibility is the ability of employees and organisations to make choices about when people work, where they work, and for how long they work.
Often people just think about part-time hours or working from home when they consider flexible work. But it is so much more.
It includes reduced hours, job-sharing, casual hours, flexible starting and finishing times, rostered days off, unpaid and access to different paid leave and flexible hours worked per week. It may also include compressed work hours per week, annualised hours, part-year employment, taking leave in part days, contract work or consulting, working non-traditional hours, secondments, phased retirement and the purchase of additional leave.
The question of where and how people work is also a central part of the idea of workplace flexibility.
New technologies and more community and collaborative styles of workplaces are enabling people to work at home, on the move, remotely at different locations, ‘hot-desking’, working as a ’day-extender’ where an employee spends sometime in the office but carries out work at home in the evening.
Technology enabled options such as video-conferencing, online discussion and other forms of online collaboration are transforming the workplace, teamwork and information sharing.
Some of these workplace flexible practices are more common that others; some have been a feature of Australian workplaces for years, others are more recent and others pose more complex challenges than others.
What’s important to note is that there are so many different types of flexible work and to be open minded to the possibilities.
So why is it a good idea?
Workplace flexibility works both ways. It can benefit the employer and the employee.
For the employer, workplace flexibility has been shown to:
- Increase employee engagement
- Increase productivity
- Reduce turnover and absenteeism
- Attract and retain employees
- Reduce facility costs
- Adapt to unpredictable and challenging business changes
- Better manage business and client needs
For the employee, workplace flexibility can increase:
- Motivation and job satisfaction
- Ability to continue work
- Ability to meet career and personal goals
- Quality of life
- Health and wellbeing
It can also help the organisation manage external and internal drivers such as:
- Globalisation – the world is changing and international time zones and borders are no longer boundaries for the way we do business
- Technology – customers now days are always on and can expect extended availability with new ways to interact. It requires flexible responses and for a lot of employees they now have access to technology that can help them do their work pretty much anywhere, anytime.
- Changing workforce – people’s ideas of what makes a good job and good employer has changed. Employees want to work differently and have a better balance with their personal commitments at different times of their lives and careers. The workforce is aging, growing numbers of employees are from dual income families, more women are in the workforce and a new generation of younger workers want to work flexibly.
- Legislation – Recent legislation is impacting some employee work contracts under the Fair Work Act, where eligible employees can request to work flexibly and managers can only decline if they can demonstrate ‘reasonable business grounds’.
Most leaders get started through either a proactive approach or a reactive response.
The reactive response will normally follow a request from a team member to work flexibly. However, you don’t have to wait for an employee to request workplace flexibility, you can raise the availability of flexible work arrangements with your team and talk about how it might work.
Successful workplace flexibility depends on both you and your team member accepting shared responsibility for developing an arrangement that works for you, your employee and the business.
No matter which way you start, it’s easy when you follow these five steps. These steps can help you give the request every consideration and set everyone up for success.
Team member applies – consider if this is a regular change or a one-off occurrence. One-off occurrences can be agreed on a case-by-case basis between you and the team member. On-going, regular arrangement need a more formal process.
Ideally the team member should apply in writing, outlining the type of workplace flexibility they are seeking, how it might work, how they can deliver the requirements of their role or propose changes to the work of the role, any impacts that affect the team, customers or the business, how long they want the flexible work arrangement for, when they want to start, any associated costs.
At this time have a conversation with your team member, and assess their eligibility using their job description, performance assessments, work contract or arrangement, continuous employment, characteristics such as communication skills, organisational skills, self-motivations and ability to adapt. Check the Fair Work Act for eligibility to request flexible work.
- The impact on the team, stakeholders and customers and how these can be addressed
- Any requirement for the role to be redesigned
- Fairness to all members of the team
- Associated costs
- What changes may be needed in communication and information sharing
Respond within 21 days in writing – once a team member applies, you must respond to them in writing within 21 days of receiving their request.
Accept, modify or decline – you have three options once you receive a request for workplace flexibility from a team member:
- Accept and approve the request, considering a trial period or pilot of 3 – 6 months
- Modify the request, discussing the options with the team member and considering a trial period
- Decline – if you decline the request, ensure you’ve given it due consideration and show adequate business reasons . You need to prove that you’ve considered how to overcome barriers. Think about the potential cost of not granting the request as it may lead to the team member leaving or becoming disengaged leading to decreased productivity.
Create a work plan – once the arrangement has been agreed, discuss and document it with the team member to avoid misunderstandings and set common expectations. Cover the day-to-day practice including days and hours to be worked, location of work, contact details, communication channels and expectations. Make adjustments to performance plans and key performance indicators if needed.
If the team member is planning to work in a different location, it’s important that the workplace complies with the Work Health and Safety Act 2011. The work site needs to be a safe area to work and team members working there are able to perform their work safely.
Assess the workplace flexibility arrangement after a trial or pilot period – conduct a review after a defined time to evaluate how the arrangement is going. Involve the team member, the whole team, stakeholders and customers. Identify if any changes are required.
Making it work
Your attitude will influence the success of any flexible work arrangement. Both overt and covert negative attitudes are barriers to successful implementation.
Question your own objections to test if they are sound.
Think of the role in terms of its performance, tasks and outputs rather than time spent in the workplace. Adhering to the notion that presence equals productivity is out-dated.
Be open to new ideas and new ways of working. Rethink time, location and mode of work – there are endless possibilities at the disposal of a creative team member and supportive leader.
Try not to make assumptions and hard and fast rules around workplace flexibility. Don’t dismiss an option just because it didn’t work once.
Clearly support flexibility, as good leaders can shape a positive workplace culture.
Role model flexible work arrangements in an open and transparent way.
Create a flexible culture in your team. The benefits are clear and extensive so help your team and colleagues to understand how flexible work can help your business. Be open to challenging the barriers and be upfront about addressing people’s concerns.
Apply your flexible leadership skills – employ your coaching, mentoring, decision-making, influencing, negotiating, evaluating, and communication skills.
Take a strategic approach and set successful management of flexible working arrangements as a goal.
© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human
Implementing workplace flexibility can come with some challenges that when acknowledged and understood can be easily navigated.
Build your confidence by understanding some of these challenges and how to overcome them.
How will I know if my team member is working if I can’t see them?
Flexible work arrangements require a level of trust between you and your team member but if you set clear expectations of job outcomes, meet with your team member regularly, review their performance and ensure they have to tools they need to do their job then you are setting the arrangement up for success.
If I offer flexible work to one team member will all of them want it?
It is unlikely that all your team members will want to work in the same way at the same time. Talk to your team about flexibility so you can understand their varying needs over time. Be open and consistent in your approach and assess each application on its own merit.
How can I manage resistors?
Use open communication, what it means, what the benefits are and whom it will impact. Make sure you don’t use flexibility as a reward or decline it as a punishment.
Is workplace flexibility suitable for every job and every person?
There is certainly a lot more opportunity to make most jobs more flexible, however some jobs will be more immovable. Think about what is going to work for the business and the team member.
- Is workplace flexibility going to mean more work for me as a leader?
You may be concerned that workplace flexibility will lead to more administration, communication, and work for the team. Workplace flexibility does require more organisation and some inventiveness, however with the right plans in place from the start, the benefits are very likely outweigh any additional team management or administration.
Will working flexibly impact my career?
Studies have shown that flexible work is sometimes seen or perceived as a career killer and employees working flexibly seen as being less legitimate or committed workers. The reality is usually the opposite, with employees who work flexibly having high levels of workplace engagement, giving more discretionary effort and taking less leave than those who don’t work flexibly.
What do I do if the flexible work arrangement isn’t working?
Discuss your concerns with your team member. Check your expectations and whether they are realistic and supportive. Ensure the team member has the resources they need to work flexibly. At the end of the day, you still have reasonable grounds to say the arrangement isn’t working and discuss with the team member to make necessary changes.
Tips for success
- Establish regular team meeting times that take into account the availability of all team members
- Schedule one on one meetings with every team member
- Don’t schedule meetings before 9.30am and after 4pm
- Consider setting core work hours
- Establish a way to keep in touch, including an emergency plan
- Unless an emergency, don’t’ contact your part-time team member during unpaid hours
- If you have team members working at a different location, develop some guidelines on expectations of when and how you’ll stay in touch, include a regular ‘check-in’ so you know how your team members are feeling, reducing any sense of isolation or exclusion
- If you have team members job-sharing, ask them to establish a written agreement on who will do what and when, and ask them to use written handover notes for continuity
- Ensure team members have the tools and resources they need to do their jobs to the best of their ability
- Ensure important events are accessible to all team members
- Include all team members in career development discussions and opportunities
- Role model flexibility so it’s seen as a normal way of working
- Juggle rosters or ask team members for input into the rosters to ensure individual and business needs are met
- Carry out forecasting of work volumes to consider peaks and flows and resourcing requirements
© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human
The most important thing a business or a leader can do around flexibility is to make it happen. Not theoretically, or in speeches, but in a really great way for the individuals on your team.
There’s some great examples of flexibility already in place.
The best example of Flexibility Toolkit based around Parental Leave is from Australia Post. This Toolkit has been used by many companies and businesses as a template on which to build their own. Its quite detailed for a small business but may still have some good ideas for you to consider as you support people on your team going through parental leave.
Its attached to the bottom of this flexibility section.
In addition, WGEA (the Workplace Gender Equity Agency) also has a nice resource on how to apply flexibility to your workplace. Its available in the public domain. A link to their site is attached here – www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/Flexibility_employee_toolkit.pdf
If you want to become an ‘expert’ in workplace flexibility there is a lot of information on the internet and loads of great books and articles. We suggest some articles and things to read.
- McDonald, P., Bradley, L., & Brown, K. (2009). ‘Full-time is a given here’: Part-time versus full-time job quality. British Journal of Management, 20, 143-157.
- McDonald, P., & Cathcart, A. (2015). A manager-centre perspective on organisational work-life agendas. In A. Wilkinson, K. Townsend, and G. Suder (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Managing Managers, Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 245-263.
- Cathcart, A., McDonald, P. & Grant-Smith D. (2014). Challenging the myths about flexible work in the ADF. Australian Defence Force Journal, 195, 55-68.
- Pini, B., & McDonald, P. (2008). Men, masculinities and flexible work in local government. Gender in Management: An International Journal, 23(8), 598-612.
- Skinner, N., Cathcart, A., & Pocock, B. (2016). To ask or not to ask? Investigating workers’ flexibility requests and the phenomenon of discontented nonrequesters, Labour & Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work.
- Smith, N., & McDonald, P. (2016). Facilitating sustainable professional part-time work: A question of design?Journal of Management & Organization, 22(2), 205–223.
- Townsend, K., McDonald, P., & Cathcart, A. (2016). Managing flexible work arrangements in small not-for-profit firms: The influence of organisational size, financial constraints and workforce characteristics. The International Journal of Human Resource Management. Advance online publication.
- Williams, P., McDonald, P., & Cathcart, A. (2016). Executive-level support for flexible work arrangements in a large insurance organization. Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources. Advance online publication.
- Strategic approach to flexibility: https://www.wgea.gov.au/lead/strategic-approach-flexibility
- Flexibility Business Case: Building your business case for flexible work through workforce metrics https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/flexibility-business-case.pdf
- Manager flexibility toolkit: How to create successful, engaged and productive flexible teams https://www.wgea.gov.au/sites/default/files/42373_manager_flexibility_toolkit.pdf
DCA – Future-Flex research and tools: https://www.dca.org.au/work-life-or-flexibility/future-flex.html
FWO – Workplace Flexibility online resources: http://fairwork.cls.janison.com/Auth/Login?ReturnUrl=/.
University of Sydney, Rae Cooper and Marian Baird
- Cooper R and Baird M2015 ‘Bringing the ‘right to request’ flexible working arrangements to life: From policies to practices’, Employee Relations, vol.37:5, pp. 568-81
- Williamson S, Cooper R and Baird M2015 ‘Job-sharing among teachers: Positive, negative (and unintended) consequences’, Economic and Labour Relations Review, vol.26:3, pp. 448-64
Chief Executive Women and Bain & Co, The power of flexibility: A key enabler to boost gender parity and employee engagement (2015) http://cew.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/BAIN_CEW_REPORT_The_power_of_flexibility_Boosting_gender_parity-vF-1.pdf
Australian Human Rights Institute, Pulse Survey: Anytime Anywhere Work Report (2014) https://www.ahri.com.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/39004/PULSE_Anytime-anywhere-work.pdf
Supporting Working Parents: A resource for employers and employees to encourage inclusive and flexible workplaces https://www.supportingworkingparents.gov.au/
Male Champions of Change: Accelerating the advancement of women in leadership: Listening, Learning, Leading (2013): http://malechampionsofchange.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/30.-2013-MCC-Report.pdf
Australian Human Rights Commission:
- Supporting Carers in the Workplace (2013) https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/UnpaidCaringToolkit_2013.pdf
- Women in male-dominated industries: A toolkit of strategies (2013) http://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/women-male-dominated-industries-toolkit-strategies-2013
- Supporting Working Parents: Pregnancy and Return to Work National Review (Chapter 6) (2014) https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/sex-discrimination/publications/supporting-working-parents-pregnancy-and-return-work
© 2017 All rights reserved
mwah. making work absolutely human