Get flexible or get real: It’s time to make flexible working a legitimate career choice
19 March 2012

A report released today by DCA, in partnership with Westpac and supporting sponsors Stockland, Origin Energy and Allens, found there is significant evidence that flexible work optimises resources and productivity. DCA urged organisations to ‘mainstream’ quality flexible work and careers as standard business practice, and offered eleven strategic actions organisations can take to achieve this.

DCA’s Get Flexible: Mainstreaming Flexible Work in Australian Business research involved conducting highly interactive ‘think tanks’ with 57 experts, from a range of Australian organisations, who have been immersed in flexible work in Australia.

The findings from the research showed that while many people have access to ‘basic’ flexible work options, meaningful flexible work and careers are not common practice in Australian workplaces, despite mainstreaming flexible work and careers being a business imperative, capable of:

  • Enabling businesses to be sustainable and adaptable to change;
  • Providing a pathway to gender equality;
  • Assisting with talent attraction and retention; and
  • Improving workplace productivity.

Nareen Young, DCA’s CEO, said the research sheds valuable light on the barriers to flexibility and suggests new ways of approaching the issue:

“Leading employers have provided a range of flexible work policies and options for many years now. But flexibility is still not viewed as a valid and legitimate management tool and career choice in contemporary Australian workplaces. This represents an enormous missed opportunity for a more productive and sustainable workforce,” said Nareen.

Gail Kelly, Westpac’s Managing Director and CEO believes flexibility delivers dividends for employers and employees, and calls it a critical enabler for creating a more diverse and inclusive workplace:

“We believe that flexibility in the workplace promotes an environment where there is equal balance between employer and employee needs. Westpac has a long history of supporting flexibility in the workplace, with four in ten employees already using some form of flexible working arrangement, either on a regular or irregular basis.

“By making flexible working arrangements an embedded business practice for all employees, at all levels of management and at different stages of their career, organisations become more sustainable and adaptive to change whilst also creating a competitive advantage in the on-going war for talent,” said Gail.

Another key finding of the research is that the way we think and talk about flexible working in Australia is a significant impediment to change, said Nareen:

“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,” said Nareen.

According to the research, organisations need to think outside the square to find new approaches to flexible work and careers:

“Instead of just saying ‘No’, organisations 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. A key first step to achieving this is to engage senior leadership teams on the benefits of flexibility and how it can be achieved,” said Nareen.

“More than anything else though we need to foster a trusting and trustworthy relationship between managers and staff to enable flexibility to become a reality,” concluded Nareen.

Key findings:

The following outlines the key findings of the panel of expert participants:

Mainstreaming flexible work and careers is a business imperative that will result in improved organisational, individual and community outcomes:

  • Businesses will be sustainable and adaptable to change;
  • Flexible work and careers is a pathway to gender equality;
  • Talent will be attracted and retained; and
  • Workplaces will be more productive.

If flexible work is to be truly mainstreamed, organisations need to adopt different ways of thinking and acting including:

  1. A culture of flexibility that attracts and retains talent;
  2. Those who engage in flexible work progress in their careers;
  3. Everyone, at all levels, engages in flexible work;
  4. All forms of flexible work are engaged in;
  5. The approach to flexible work is dynamic, adapting to the changing needs of individuals and the organisation;
  6. There is a proactive approach to flexible work that is evident in both the business strategy and in management behaviour;
  7. Flexible work is evident in both formal and informal processes;
  8. Flexible work is engaged in for any reason;
  9. Flexible work is based on trust;
  10. Flexible work is a tool for increasing business performance.

Strategies that would have a significant impact in making flexible work standard include:

  1. Get designing: Integrate flexibility into job descriptions, job and work design, and teams; integrate flexibility into performance reviews & development plans; assess performance on outcomes, and recognise outcomes can be met in different ways; treat flexibility as a management deliverable; explore possibilities of technology and alternative work strategies.
  2. Get cultural: Ensure those who work flexibly are “accepted”; base relationships and expectations on trust; ensure flexible work is seen as the way things are done around here; challenge the stigma of working flexibly.
  3. Get leading: Senior leaders genuinely commit to flexible work; leaders lead by example – they are effective role models for flexibility; leaders have an active approach to mainstreaming flexibility; leaders have the capabilities to manage a majority flexible workforce; all staff have the necessary skills to engage in flexible work.
  4. Get talking: Show the business benefits; redefine flexible work by bringing it to life with examples; illustrate success stories – provide the details to enable others to copy; show how flexible work arrangements work on a practical level.
  5. Get strategizing: Identify flexible work as a business need; have a long term business commitment to flexible work; create a strategy for a majority flexible workforce – this is part of workforce planning; report progress and outcomes as part of standard business reporting.
  6. Get universal: Foster a genuine acceptance of flexible work by all; ensure flexible work is available to all, regardless of job type or level; educate clients/customers and the community about flexible work.
  7. Get resourced: Equip people with the tools they need (e.g. IT, team-based processes); provide appropriate resourcing for flexibility; review policy and systems that may impede flexibility implementation; explore new ways of meeting clients’ needs and consult clients and customers about this.
  8. Get ROI: Engage in risk (e.g. not being flexible) vs return (e.g. retaining a skilled workforce) discussions; make the connection between flexibility and increased individual, team and organisational performance; measure the impact of flexible work and show the financial returns.
  9. Get proactive: Look for opportunities to integrate flexibility into day-to-day business operations; focus on ‘why not flexibility’ rather than looking for reasons to ’block’ flexibility.
  10. Get team-focussed: Consider the impact of flexible work on the whole team; focus on support from within and across teams; welcome team-based feedback on the impact of flexibility; create flexibly autonomous teams.
  11. Get career-focussed:  Create flexible career opportunities; integrate flexibility into senior roles.

The CEOs of supporting sponsors Stockland, Origin Energy and Allens explained why they support mainstreaming flexibility:

“Embracing flexibility enables people to work smarter and is critical to maximising productivity and building a high performance work culture. Stockland are delighted to participate in this innovative research project to assist in unlocking the benefits of flexible working,” said Matthew Quinn, Managing Director, Stockland.

“At Origin, we are seeking to better understand what flexibility means to individual employees and at different life stages, as we attempt to truly integrate flexible working into our business. As always, our actions are guided by maintaining our current high standards of competence and performance and are in keeping with Origin’s commitment to diversity and to an environment in which individuals are supported and respected. Studies such this help to educate and inform how the integration of flexibility into business strategy can drive productivity and strengthen workplace culture,” said Grant King, Chief Executive Officer, Origin Energy.

“At Allens, our approach to flexibility involves more than establishing flexible work arrangements. We also consider how, when and where work is done. Our approach to flexibility involves a two way relationship that benefits our firm as an employer by engaging the people who work here. The Mainstreaming Flexibility study provides a great opportunity for organisations to share their experience in developing and improving flexible work practices,” said Michael Rose, Chief Executive Partner, Allens.

DCA members can access a full copy of the reseach at http://dca.org.au/work-life-or-flexibility/read-more-on-research-for-work-life-or-flexibility.html.

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