Wednesday, 22 May 2019 11:15

We need to broaden our thinking about flexible work

Today is Flexible Working Day, an international day to celebrate flexibility at work and workplace initiatives to improve work–life balance. Here, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton reflects on the need to destigmatise flexible work requests, the benefits of flexible work arrangements for all employees, and how workplaces can make it happen.

Cartoon of people in an office

Flexible work arrangements are a critical part of the conversation about gender equality at work – but it’s not just about women.

When we envisage fairer and more inclusive workplaces, aren’t we thinking of a workplace culture that recognises and values the differences of all individuals, that allows them to perform their best at work while still making a meaningful contribution in the other parts of their lives? For some people, that might be parenting or caring for a relative, but for others it could be education or sport or a hobby.

To address gender inequality at work, we need to interrogate long-standing stereotypes about who should and shouldn’t be using flexible work arrangements. One of the most pervasive attitudes is that men with parental responsibilities who request flexible working arrangements – often so they can pick up or drop off the kids, or attend appointments or school performances – aren’t serious about their careers. Destigmatising requests for flexible work is essential for ensuring both men and women have the flexibility to raise a family and have a career.

What is flexible work and why does it matter?

Recent research on flexible work has highlighted the diverse ways that workplaces can give their employees flexibility. Some workplaces offer part-time or job-share opportunities, while others provide flexible hours or compressed working weeks (for example, doing full-time hours across four days instead of five). Rethinking leave provisions can also support flexible work – it might be allowing employees to purchase additional leave or accrue time in lieu. Some of the most popular solutions involve giving employees the flexibility to work from home and access IT systems remotely.

As flexible work becomes a more accepted part of working life, we’re hearing more and more about the benefits. In many industries, flexible work arrangements are an important way to support work–life balance and employee wellbeing. When it comes to recruitment, flexible work is often cited as a key factor in attracting and retaining high-performing employees.

More recently, we’ve started to see research on the tangible benefits of flexible work. A 2018 study by the Nous Group and the Office of Prevention and Women’s Equality found that flexible work arrangements yielded a persuasive return on investment for public authorities – the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning reported an annual net saving of $31 million, while Mercy Health reported $23 million and Wannon Water $150,000 respectively.

Making flexible work arrangements work

When I talk to the leadership teams in public sector agencies, I hear great examples of how they’ve made flexible work arrangements work for them. The head of one of Victoria’s largest public authorities told me last week about how he’d switched up the approval process for flexible work. Where previously members of his senior leadership group would report the flexible work requests they had approved, they were now reporting requests they had refused, along with their rationale, so they could monitor patterns and address any unconscious bias.

Another statutory authority I’ve spoken to had a long-established “flexitime” policy but undertook a digital transformation in 2017 to give their employees even more freedom. They invested in cloud-based file storage, web-based applications and digital telecommunications to allows team members to work from any part of the building – or from a client’s office or from their own home. They also changed their approach to planning all-staff meetings, to ensure they are scheduled well in advance, and rotated across different days and times to ensure part-time staff and staff who work flexibly do not consistently miss out.

So, what makes flexible work arrangements work at work? An important first step is developing a robust policy founded on transparent decision-making and clear expectations. Second, think about how you can adopt technology that supports employees to work flexibly. Third, promote and normalise flexible work arrangements across your organisation – make it a selling point for new recruits, talk about it publicly and proudly to remove any stigma, and build strong internal communications channels so that staff working flexibly don’t miss out on important news. Finally, recognise the importance of leadership championing flexible work and making it part of your organisation’s business-as-usual.

So, today, on Flexible Working Day, let’s look for inventive solutions to how our workplaces operate, let’s ensure fair and equitable working options for all employees, and let’s empower every team member to give their best at work and in all parts of their lives.

More information on Flexible Working Day

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Media contact

Peter Davies
Mobile:
0447 526 642
Email: Peter.Davies@veohrc.vic.gov.au 

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