Mainstreaming workplace flexibility

Leadership

By AGSM Apr 26, 2017 

When Deloitte launched its Return to Work program in Australia this year, it received almost 500 applicants for 12 paid internship positions within its consulting practice. Designed for people who had been out of the workforce for at least two years, it offers tailored support and coaching to transition back into work at a manager and director level.

While available to men and women, programs like this are aimed at helping women who’ve been on a career break – usually due to raising a family – and in the process addressing workplace diversity and the gender gap in Australian leadership.

‘It can be really challenging for women to return to work at that level,’ explains Natalie Goldman, CEO of FlexCareers, who helped Deloitte launch the program.

‘They may lack self-confidence, but they have so much to contribute. We received amazing feedback from women saying, “thank goodness someone is doing this”.

FlexCareers is also working with the AGSM on its Careers Comeback sponsorship program, designed to help parents and carers develop the skills, confidence and networks they need to re-establish their career. Successful candidates will receive full funding for an AGSM Certificate in Executive Management and Development, along with travel and childcare reimbursements. 

Programs like these have already had great success in the UK, where research shows that on returning to work, three in five women could end up in lower-skilled jobs.  

One of the biggest barriers to returning to work is flexibility, with four in ten Australians (men and women) saying they would reject a job offer if it didn't meet their flexibility needs. 

‘If women don’t have flexibility in the workplace, they will struggle to re-enter and find meaningful careers,’ explains Natalie. FlexCareers, founded two years ago, was developed to help women find those flexible roles. It already has a community of more than 55,000 people. 

‘They’re mostly women, and they’re now connecting with fantastic, progressive employers in a digital jobs marketplace,’ explains Natalie. ‘Every role is flexible in some way, so the barrier to entry is removed. Employers love it, as this is a very specific, untapped talent pool. They’re not on Seek or using recruiters, and this changes the conversation.’

Flex to meet your changing workplace demands

Let’s start by defining what flexibility really means. It’s not simply part-time work. A flexible approach for where and when work is done means a shift to focusing on output, rather than hours in the office. That could include job sharing, or allowing some work to be done from home. 

In Australia, less than 50 per cent of organisations have a workplace flexibility policy. And even when those policies exist, they aren't always easy to access.  Yet the same study indicates it's the key to employee engagement and productivity and can also boost profitability and innovation. Where flexible arrangements are widely used, all employees are four times happier than in organisations with no flexible options.  

 ‘There is a bigger picture for workforce planning,’ Natalie says. ‘Millennials want flexibility – they want the option to have a start-up or collaborative project on the side. And “dial it downers” – baby boomers who want to keep working – also embrace flexibility.’ Then there’s Generation X, who may be sandwiched between the needs of ageing parents and growing children. 

‘The future of work recognises everyone has very different human needs, and those will change as life changes. We don’t all fit into a neat box, we just want more control over the impact of work on our lives.’
Who’s flexing well?

Natalie says many people are surprised by how many major companies offer flexible roles. ‘The banking and finance sector is very committed to this. For example, Macquarie Bank supports remote working and flexible hours, while Westpac has an all-in flex policy.’

She says Lendlease has been ‘surprisingly phenomenal’ in getting creative with job design.  

‘Even on their construction sites, they’ve engaged with their workforce to understand what really matters to them. For example, they’ve looked at a choice of shift start and finish times, so site managers can handle either end of the school run.’

Flexibility can also solve talent roadblocks. Woolworths, for example, allows staff to work some hours from home given its Bella Vista head office is not convenient to all commuters. 

From engineering to energy businesses, big businesses are embracing flexibility – largely because their people are asking for it. And Natalie emphasises that those who don’t will be left behind – not just on the war for talent, but in meeting customer needs.

‘You need to adapt and reflect your market. If your entire board is made up of white middle-aged men called Peter, you won’t reflect your customer base and you won’t have any difference in thinking or innovation.’

Five flex ingredients
Mainstreaming flexibility requires cultural change – and that’s not always easy. Natalie suggests the following are needed to change the way your people work.
Technology – this is the enabler for almost every function to be performed remotely, and for team collaboration.
Trust – between employer and employee, to overcome that fear that if staff can't be seen you don't know they’re working.
Authenticity – be realistic about what is on offer, and don’t simply say no.
Support – managers need training in new skills to coach flexible teams and empower collaboration.
Leadership – role model flexible working by demonstrating that senior leaders do it as well.

‘I had a GM admit to me that he didn't take parental leave because he didn't have the guts to ask for it – but now he would,’ says Natalie. ‘It needs to be seen as a normalised part of your workplace, not a pocket version that only works well for one team.’

The future of work
Technology, global market forces and shifts in demographic expectations will all change the way we work in the coming decades. In the longer term, Natalie hopes both life and work will be more inclusive.

‘We’ll see roles shared more equally between partners – not gender-based – so the workforce can more evenly represent all genders and cultures. As the types of families change and evolve, the typical scenario of women taking extensive parental leave may change. Same-sex couples, blended families, single parents – everyone wants flexibility.’

She also expects to see an increase in smaller regional offices, fewer centralised head offices, and even more people working from home. ‘The technology will be so good, we’ll collaborate live online. Our mindsets will shift, we’ll trust each other to work in a more mobile way, and we can work from any location, at any time.’

For companies of all sizes, now’s the time to make sure management processes and structures are keeping pace with the demands of talent – today, and in the future – when flexible work will be mainstream. 

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