Flexibility a powerful tool for employers facing office return reluctance

By
Lisa Annese, DCA CEO
Opinion pieces
Topics Flexibility

Hundreds of thousands of Australians are estimated to quit their jobs this year for more meaningful work or a better life balance, creating a talent loss for some employers and opening up opportunities for others.

It’s no secret that what we thought were temporary changes to how we work during lockdowns have made us rethink what we want our work lives to look like, and how we can continue to prioritise our personal needs. 

Business leaders also need to move away from the idea that flexibility is just about working from home, either permanently or in a hybrid fashion.

However, employers shouldn’t consider flexibility a gimmick to lure new talent or get their teams back to the CBD office.

Instead, they should see it as a powerful business tool to drive inclusion, productivity, and better worker health and wellbeing.

The challenge for leaders is getting it right. 

We’ve seen many businesses stumble in the past by looking at flexibility from the perspective of accommodating individuals rather than taking a team approach.

Employers that adopt an individualised model risk unknowingly marginalising workers from their teams and disadvantaging them, which can have greater implications for women, people with a disability and other marginalised groups. 

For example, when women returned to work from parental leave in the past, well-meaning employers provided part-time options. 

And while women initially welcomed the opportunity to remain in the workforce, many soon found they’d inadvertently opted out of a career hierarchy and were stuck in isolated roles.

It wasn’t until we saw leading practice organisations mainstream flexibility that women were able to continue progressing their careers while managing caring responsibilities.

The risks are similar for employers and workers considering permanent requests to work solely from home in a post-pandemic workforce.

Flexibility done well is more than just responding to individual workers when they request change. It is about leaders starting a conversation about how we can work together more effectively, being open to new approaches and embracing the opportunity to create new or equal opportunities for women and people with a disability.

Barriers such as long commutes, rigid hours and inaccessible office spaces have made it harder for people with a disability to balance medical appointments, rest and time with family, and they may face discriminatory attitudes among workers that feed exclusion and harm.

It’s more than just changing how we work. The way we lead needs to change, along with our assumptions about who makes a good leader.

Research shows the more time women spend out of work caring for others and managing a household, the less they can focus on their careers and pursue opportunities to increase their earnings and grow their retirement savings.

Individualised flexibility offered only to women, particularly those with children, exacerbates this issue.

Most Australians think men and women should share equal parenting responsibilities, and while many fathers want to access flexibility that would enable them to take on more unpaid care, they’re more likely than women to have their requests denied. 

However, our research shows flexibility made available to anyone, for any reason, eases the burden of caring and household responsibilities on women by levelling the playing field with men.

The pandemic has helped address inaccurate assumptions that flexible team members are less ambitious, productive or committed to their organisation.

For people with a disability, normalising flexibility for everyone supports better wellbeing and increased productivity without excluding individuals.

Redesigning work means managers and teams working together to look at the location, timing, responsibilities, tasks and duties of the team to develop team-based solutions. 

It requires us to challenge our biased assumptions about flexibility and rethink how we can lead teams effectively to ensure everyone’s needs are balanced equally.

Employers must ensure managers are supported and resourced to introduce flexible options that stand the test of time.

As a result, they’ll reap the benefits of improved customer service, innovation, growth and efficiency by supporting workers to prioritise what is important to them while meeting business goals.

It boils down to leaders recognising the growing sentiment that the things we love are more important to us than work, and acting with the intent to find a balance between personal priorities and business needs that works for everyone.

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This piece was originally published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.

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