Flexibility requires more than just policy

Our partnership with South Australian Police (SAPOL) over the last year, has more than confirmed that flexibility takes a whole lot more than a policy and ticking a few boxes. It takes great leadership, a different mindset, thoughtful changes across the whole system, and a sustained and measurable commitment to go the distance.

In short, it means you have to rethink the way you work. Few organisations have made those changes as well as SAPOL.

Last week, the South Australian Equal Opportunity Commission handed down their expected review of the changes in leadership, culture and flexibility at SAPOL. The words they used were there has been a ‘seismic shift’. Based on that independent assessment, we thought it was timely to bring some of the lessons of SAPOL to everyone who’s tackling the challenge of bringing flexibility to their workplace, particularly in fields where flexibility isn’t perceived as easy.

The ambition

In 2016, the EOC handed down a report that outlined 38 recommendations promoting equal opportunity, diversity, and inclusion. It was a daunting report, especially for an organisation that has a long and proud history. Despite being rocked by some of the findings, SAPOL was up for the challenge. They formed Project Equitas as lead and set a clear vision for enhancing SAPOL as an inclusive organisation where all people are safe, respected and supported to reach their potential.

As stated in the press release this week, “The change they then proceeded to implement is a reflection of every employees’ efforts in a broad organisational cultural change”.


It’s only when you work alongside the Police that you get a real understanding of their world. This is their context:

  • To a person, they sign up to a purpose of “Keeping the community safe”. It is their work every day. It is serious work, done with absolute commitment.
  • They take great pride in always taking a leading approach to community connection. There’s a note from the Commissioner that opens their website, and its simply states “Successful policing requires the support and goodwill of the public, as much as it does the dedication and effort of each police officer and employee”. Without exception, every time we’ve worked alongside them, this has been clear.
  • There is healthy competition between Police. They share everything and actively learn from each other, but they do like to challenge each other to be better at policing.
  • They’re well trained. From the first day on the force, SAPOL leaders are constantly training. They appreciate the leadership and know what it means.
  • They fully accept that they and their work are transparent and fully accountable to people of South Australia.
  • Their workforce is broad and complex. It includes sworn police officers, community constables, protective security officers, specialists and administrative staff, and volunteers.
  • They work from the CBD in Adelaide to the remote areas of the Far North and West of the state, to the Victorian and New South Wales borders in the South and East, and everywhere in between.
  • They know the future is different. To again quote the Commissioner, “to achieve this, SAPOL is undergoing a program of restructuring and renewal to ensure it can continue to provide the service needed and expected by the community well into the future”.
  • The bottom line to SAPOL’s context is that is a good organisation, that respects and values its history, and wants to build a better future.

The Program of Work

The program of work that has been undertaken, looks at every part of the ‘system’ that is working at SAPOL, right across everything that matters – leadership, mindset, process, policy, structure, capability, culture, communication, change and (extensive) measurement. There is a dedicated internal team who ‘owns’ the change in partnership with every leader and every employee.

For those of us who love this People and Culture space, the program of work really is a very impressive blueprint of what it takes to genuinely shift culture forward.

It would be so good if culture change was a magic pill, but it is not. It would be so easy if flexibility was a policy and short workshop, but it is not.

The Lessons

There is a plethora of good lessons from the SAPOL experience. We think these are the top five

  • It starts with Leadership.

The role of leadership in starting systemic organisational culture change cannot be underestimated. An inspirational vision is nice, but much more important is the consistent ongoing messaging and commitment to resources as they’re needed. When you start to change something as big as ‘the way we work around here’, there’s pushback, the early naysayers, the challenges that seem insurmountable, and the outliers who dig a trench and pitch a tent in the old ways of working. So, the change needs to start with strong and clear messaging that acknowledges the challenge of the change, reassures everyone they will be supported to make the change, and outlines the initial plan. Then those same leaders need to keep coming back to confirm that the change is on, and giving progress updates, so everyone knows their efforts are on track and heading in the right direction. Ultimately, leading flexibility across an organisation requires an open mindset from EVERY leader, but it starts with absolute clarity from the top. David Thodey started the Australian move to “All Roles Flex” when he led Telstra. SAPOL has absolute alignment across the most senior leaders, from the Commissioner down. EVERY senior leader has attended workshops, used their own voice to support the change, and been actively involved in every step of the program.

  • Its sustained by everyone. Involves ALL Employees

Leadership may be where it starts, but Flexibility quickly becomes an “everyone” program. Working in a flexible workplace requires a much higher level of personal accountability and self-management. It requires a greater level of team alignment. Like no other organisation we’ve worked with, SAPOL nailed this idea! The collateral was limited to just a few things that mattered (rather than the mountains of ‘everything we could think of’ approach we’ve all seen too often). If there was messaging, it mattered. If there was collateral, it was enticing. One of the first pieces was a mini-brochure on how to work flexibly – for every person across SAPOL. It was about personal accountability, the role in team communication and connectivity. It was about respect and regard for others. Working flexibly requires consideration of others. It means supporting each other all the time, whether it be flexibility for a moment in time or flexibility for a longer life stage. This stage at SAPOL also broke the back of the old ‘it’s only for working mums’ mentality. The “If not, why not” approach established that no explanation was required and the examples used were broad. They included personal wellbeing, health, and fitness, caring for partners, and balancing work with sport or other activities.

Flexibility may have had its roots in gender diversity, with the availability of flexibility correlating to higher levels of women in the workforce, but in reality, working flexibly is rapidly becoming the norm. Flexibility is one of the first changes of many to come. Working lives are getting longer. Working weeks are getting shorter. Careers and education are no longer linear and perfectly aligned. People learn all their life. People have multiple careers. The way we work is fundamentally changing. Leading flexibility is probably the easiest change leaders will have to make in the next five years. SAPOL was clear on the fact that ‘leading flexibility’ was just the beginning, and that it was an essential capability for any leader or being part of any team in the future.

  • It Takes Open Minds and Practice

Redesigning work takes an open mind, particularly when the way you work now is backed by a long proud history, as it is at SAPOL. You have to come at it from two angles, and then build all the bridges needed to link them both to today.

The first angle is specifically looking at the outlier ‘no-flex-here’ examples, and whittling away at how to make them flexible. The best example of this was policing at Coober Pedy. It started as a ‘talk to the hand’, and ended as an outspoken example of possibility.

The second angle is taking your purpose out to the future, and rethinking how you might deliver that purpose if you didn’t have the restrictions of today. This was taking a blank sheet of paper to the “how do we keep the community safe” purpose, and designing policing for the future.

Of course, the SAPOL context also included, appropriately, the awards and rules of safe policing. Built over time, these rules and guidelines have been built carefully, and are critical to keep police safe while they’re keeping us safe.

The bridges you need to build from tweaking rules and awards, to full-fledged redesign, are careful and thoughtful and detailed.

In People and Culture, we know the people who ‘just do this’ – sprouting the ideas of magical beans that grow change instantly without doing the hard yards across all the levers. SAPOL had and has an appetite for the long-term bridge building. They are up for designing a better future, but they equally have the resilience to build bridges that are sustainable. Flexibility at SAPOL will be the result of thoughtful planning and a thousand examples and case studies, all building to a new playbook. It will not be an initiative du jour.

  • Measurement is Critical

We get pretty geeky about measurement. Any of our clients will tell you, we measure everything. To build sustainable thoughtful change, you have to know where you are now, where you’re going to, and the value and size of every step. At SAPOL, they measure everything too. It made for an easy partnership.

The big measures are obvious. For example, the number of flexibility requests, and the number of people working flexibly. The number of cases and complaints. The number of people who have attended training. The clicks on communication, and the attendance at info sessions.

The smaller measures are not as obvious but equally important. The confidence to lead flexibility, the number of specific examples each person has on their watch, the number of pilot ideas, the pilots that have worked and been scaled, and the pilots that have been abandoned or changed to a better idea.

You’re changing mindsets and ways of working. That takes measurement and a deep understanding of what that means. SAPOL measured it all. They know the story they want to tell, and they know every detail of reality. The gap is the next step.

At mwah. we use a simple three step Maturity Model for Diversity and Inclusion. It’s a model we helped build for AHRI nationally.

The first step is compliance. Apply the rules. Sit above the law.

Second is programmatic change.

The third is embedding into the DNA of an organisation.

Applying that to Flexibility is a good way to look at.

Step 1 – the rules applied. ‘Right to request flexibility’ taken seriously, and available as needed. Processes to deal with requests and cases.

Step 2 – programmatic approach to a policy and processes to deal with case studies. Leaders all trained properly.

Step 3 – seriously deeply moving mindsets in every corner of the organisation to ensure flexibility is simply our way of working every day.

We’ve no doubt that SAPOL is set up to embed flexibility and inclusion into the very DNA of the organisation.

Are they there yet? No, but they are on track. And the independent EOC report is another indication that they have a whole lot right.

We look forward to SAPOL being the next truly great example of an Australian organisation that took on a massively ambition fundamental change to the way they worked and delivered a future of working that was better for everyone – for leaders, for every person on the team, and the community they keep safe every day.

Image by True Blue Line