Life is messy. If we want the brightest workforce, we need more flexible work

Lisa Annese, DCA's CEO
Opinion pieces
Topics Flexibility
Lisa Annese

When Annabel Crabb was collecting stories for her book The Wife Drought: Why women need wives and men need lives, I told her about a moment in my career when I had returned to work after parental leave.

It was six o’clock in the morning and an international teleconference that I was chairing was interrupted by my three children. They were devastated that their pet guinea pig had given birth during the night and that daddy guinea pig had proceeded to eat the babies, and chaos ensued. Throughout this episode, I continued to mute and unmute my line, trying to give the impression that nothing unusual was happening.

If this were to take place today, I would no longer pretend that all was well in the background.

Life is messy. If we want our best and brightest in the workforce, we need to accept that they have complex lives. We need to be flexible when it comes to the realities of balancing career and family.

Being flexible at work doesn’t just benefit people trying to balance their outside lives with work. An extensive body of research demonstrates the business benefits of flexible working. Yet despite this overwhelming evidence, access to flexible work and careers is not widespread. Flexible work is still regarded as an add-on, something we do for mothers for a few months when they are back from parental leave.

But in the face of rapid changes to the way we work, organisations need to move beyond just having policies for flexible working or making ad-hoc adjustments for certain individuals. Companies need to fundamentally rethink the way they design work and jobs.

The World Economic Forum predicts that we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution. Technological, socioeconomic and demographic shifts are transforming the way we work, demanding flexibility in the way individuals, teams and organisations work.

At Diversity Council Australia, we all work flexibly. As a leader, thinking flexibly wasn’t something that came naturally to me (at first). Yet by looking at our organisation as a whole from a flexible mindset, I could see the benefits.

We all have different things happening in our lives at different times. Not just caring for young kids, but other family members, community roles, study and volunteering. And all of these parts of our identities bring with them different skill sets.

These days we have DCA staff who work remotely, staff who work compressed weeks, staff who are part-time. And it works. Because we designed it that way. And because we want it to.

In today’s workforce, fewer people identify with the stereotype of the ideal worker – a full-time, fully committed employee without personal or family commitments that impact on availability. 

For 63% of two-parent families with dependent children in Australia, both parents are employed full time. Then there are those increasingly facing elder care commitments. And more people are interested in working for themselves. All these employee segments seek flexible work and this demand is likely to increase in the future.

There are a few factors driving the demand for increased flexibility. Globalisation is one. The development of a 24/7 marketplace, and the rapid expansion of the services economy are also having a transformational effect on the workplace, requiring organisations to think creatively about how they can best organise jobs and work to respond to an increasingly diverse and demanding customer base.

Similarly technology is driving – and enabling – greater flexibility. It is dramatically reshaping our workplaces, blurring the boundaries between work and home and diversifying where, when and how employees work. Advances in mobile, internet and cloud technologies, the rapid development of computing power, and the digital connection between multiple objects have all driven workplace innovations such as remote working, telecommuting, coworking spaces, video/teleconferencing, and virtual teams and collaboration.

So the future of work demands new approaches to work design – but have workplaces risen to the challenge? The evidence suggests we have yet to grasp this opportunity to be more innovative.

While some employers are making flexible work more available, there is still a high prevalence of bolted-on temporary arrangements. These arrangements are seen as the exception to the rule, with the full-time, “face-time”, long hours “ideal worker” still the model to which everyone is expected to adhere.

So what does it take to redesign work? DCA’s new research project, Future-Flex, recommends workplace flexibility based on a work design mindset.

More than just accommodating one person’s needs, it’s about redesigning work at a team or whole organisation level, where employees are key partners in developing team-based flexibility solutions.

It’s about flexibility being seen as a business tool that can improve the performance and wellbeing of organisations, teams and individuals, while meeting business goals.

It’s about getting the culture right so it is supportive of flexibility. So employees can access flexibility for all roles and for any reason – and throughout their careers.

And it’s about being aware of our own biases – conscious and unconscious. Many people make assumptions about flexible workers, including that they’re not interested in training and development, aren’t committed to the organisation, or don’t have any career aspirations. We need to explore and challenge these biases.

There are good international examples of successful work redesign that have involved the input of a team of employees. For example, a UK bakery sat down with their bakers and came up with a flexible system of two to three baking shifts a day to maintain a steady supply of fresh bread. The team agreed to rotate their hours each week so no team member permanently worked a shift that did not suit. After the change was made, bakery sales increased by more than 65% in the first year and employee satisfaction in the bakery has risen 10% since the change to 93%.

At an international hotel chain, long work hours and 24/7 operations were taking their toll on managers. A team-based process was implemented to improve work-life fit for managers while maintaining customer service. The criteria for success were that it reduced work hours, stress and job burnout, had no adverse financial impact on business, and sustained high-quality customer service. The results were very positive. Managers’ work hours were reduced by five hours a week. Low-value work decreased by 50%. There was no negative cost or organisational impact and stress and work-life conflicts reduced significantly.

So work redesign is not only doable, it can deliver business benefits, although it does require a completely new approach.

With the support of the Retail Council, National Australia Bank, Allens, IBM, BAE Systems Australia and IAG, DCA has developed new tools to help Australian organisations in the retail sector to increase flexibility.

By changing our thinking and focusing on the team and the organisation as a whole, rather than the individual, we have the opportunity to create more adaptable and sustainable workplaces – with or without guinea pigs.

This article was first published in Guardian Sustainable Business.

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