Limber up for a new era

Flexible work policies are often seen as 'special treatment' rather than common practice, writes Nareen Young, and organisations need to be open to new approaches if they want to reap the benefits of such arrangements.

Productivity Spectator

Leading employers have been providing a range of flexible work policies and options for many years now. However, flexibility is still not viewed as a valid and legitimate management tool or career choice in contemporary Australian workplaces.

Diversity Council Australia recently conducted research, in partnership with Westpac and supporting sponsors Stockland, Origin Energy and Allens Arthur Robinson, that sheds valuable light on the barriers to flexible working and new ways of approaching the issue.

Our report, Get Flexible: Mainstreaming Flexible Work in Australian Business, found that while many people have access to ‘basic’ flexible work options, meaningful flexible work and careers are not common practice in Australian workplaces. This is despite flexible working and careers providing considerable benefits for productivity and performance; sustainability; employee engagement, health and job satisfaction; and attraction and retention of people talent.

It’s clear this represents an enormous missed opportunity for a more productive and sustainable workforce – but there are solutions.

Firstly, we need to change the way we think and talk about flexible working as this is a significant impediment to change. When we talk ‘flexibility’, it’s not only about being flexible with the how, when and where work is conducted. It’s also about all types of flexibility and being able to have flexible careers that includes ramping up or ramping down career investment at different life stages. Flexible work and career progression must not be mutually exclusive.

The language we use inadvertently fosters the view that flexible work is ‘special treatment’ for a select few, for example, mothers of infants and young children and those with some significant personal health needs.

Instead it should be available to everyone for a broad range of reasons – from fathers who want to be involved in the hands-on caring for their children, to those who have elderly parents who need care, or those who want to ease back on work as they prepare for retirement.

There is also a need for greater clarity in the business debate about flexibility. Currently there is a mixture of arguments and approaches covering both the need to have a flexible workforce (a common employer perspective) and the need for employees to have access to flexible work options (an employee perspective). These are often viewed as two competing ‘either/or’ perspectives. Yet a balance between employer and employee flexibility is achievable and can yield significant positive outcomes for both employers and employees.

Organisations need to think outside the square to find new approaches to flexible work and careers. Instead of just saying ‘no’, they need to have an open mind and be creative about the possibilities if they are to reap the benefits. They also need to build flexible work and careers into their business strategies rather than bolt them on as a set of policies, a program or a set of arrangements that are separate to the way the business runs.

In short, employers need to move beyond work-life policy into work-life practice. This means offering flexible work at the point of recruitment – not just when people return from parental leave. It means investing in manager’s skills and capability to make flexible working an everyday reality for employees. It means introducing flexible career paths instead of automatically putting working mothers on the ‘mummy track’. It means creating a dynamic culture of flexibility where all forms of flexible working are available to everyone at every level, adapting to the changing needs of individuals and the organisation. And it means those of us who want or need a more flexible role feel able to demand that of their current or future employers.

A key first step to achieving all this is to engage your senior leadership on the benefits of flexibility and how it can be achieved. Another is to foster a trusting and trustworthy relationship between managers and staff to enable flexibility to become a reality.

The good news here is that flexible working is achievable – with real benefits for employers and employees alike. Now it just needs to become standard business practice.

Nareen Young is CEO of the Diversity Council of Australia.