By Kate Sykes and Emma Grey
Old-school managers still shrivel inside when a staff-member approaches with a flexible-work request. ‘It can’t be done!’ is the knee-jerk reaction, closely followed by ‘Shh... What if everyone wants it?’
One of the National Employment Standards, effective since 1 January 2010, provides employees with children under school-age, or children under 18 with a disability, a “right to request” a flexible work arrangement. A refusal (required in writing, within 21 days) can only be on “reasonable business grounds” and the employer must detail those reasons specifically.
Moving into the ‘Digital Age’, many workplaces still operate on Industrial Age patterns. And with an ageing population, retiring baby-boomers, Gen Y moving into parenthood and ‘Digital Natives’ coming behind them, employers – whether they’re ready for it or not - are heading into a future dominated by ‘survival of the most flexible’.
It’s not as scary as it sounds. Here are five long-held myths about flexible employment and tips on making it work.
Flexibility is just for working mums
Women comprise close to 50% of the workplace and in 65% of Australian families, both parents work. Requests to care for children are commonplace and, increasingly, caring for elderly parents is another key driver.
Transport and traffic problems in main centres have caused many employers to offer core work hours from 10am-4pm. Employees work from home outside those hours, to avoid delays.
Physical and mental illness, further education opportunities, career down-sizing for work-life balance, travel and other special needs (training as an elite sportsperson, for example) are common reasons for flexible work requests.
The retention of baby-boomers and their corporate knowledge through flexible work and semi-retirement is one of the key challenges facing workplaces today.
Once one person has it, everyone will want it
Particularly in the case of part-time work - and the reduced income that accompanies it – this isn’t true. Some employees prefer the routine and certainty of a team-based environment, where work is supervised rather than the isolation and distraction of working from home.
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and flexibility may be as simple as staggered start-times or as complex as working from another country.
Flexibility is often requested in response to the life-cycle. People drift into and out of it as their circumstances change.
Having a policy is not enough. There needs to be a formal process that the employee and manager will follow to ensure that a proposed flexible work arrangement is thoroughly considered. Providing more rigorous procedures when requesting a flexible work arrangement will not only ensure that the arrangement is thoroughly dissected, but will also ensure that ‘tyre kickers’ will be turned off by the work involved in negotiating a workable arrangement.
The team will resent it
With a well-managed flexible work arrangement, consideration will have been given to ‘who does what’, particularly during times when the employee isn’t at work. The arrangement will have been communicated clearly to the team by the manager and provision will have been made to cover off key tasks (often at the suggestion of the employee, and others in the team, who know the work best). Opportunities will have been identified for other team-members to develop, by covering some tasks in what is effectively a ‘job-share’ situation.
Ideally, stakeholders will have been consulted and will have a say in how the impact will be managed. Even law firms (particularly since the majority of law graduates are now female) are starting to communicate more with clients about how to make this work.
Once they have a flexible work arrangement, we’re stuck with it
Flexible work usually follows a life-stage or specific situation, and is often established within a trial period. If someone is sick, or has a young child or an elderly parent who requires care, if they’re involved in an important event outside of work, or if there are unique circumstances about their location – often it’s only for a fixed term.
Employees who work flexibly, work hard. They’re usually more focused, manage their time better and are more productive. If the situation is managed well, their morale is higher, they’re more loyal and their better wellbeing means fewer absences.
It’s all right for other fields, but this job can’t be done flexibly
Flexible work means anything outside standard hours and location. Some job roles can’t be done at home. Others can’t be done with varied work hours. However there might be an option to job-share with another employee with similar skills.
A thorough proposal will consider which tasks need to be done at work, which can be done elsewhere, which must be done during ‘standard hours’, which can be done outside of that, whether two staff members can share a task and whether the task needs to be done at all.
Even at a basic, informal level, “employers-of-choice” sit down with their teams at the start of each week and ask what their needs are outside work. Between them, the team openly juggles work requirements, while allowing staff the time they need to balance their lives. Talented people stay in environments like this.
Emma Grey from WorkLifeBliss and Kate Sykes from Lift Recruitment and Career Mums, run masterclasses for managers on how to create and implement flexibility in the workplace. The training is ideal for line managers and HR staff who are developing or revising flexible-work policies and procedures, and includes detailed templates for successful outcomes for the workplace and for staff.
Click here for more information and upcoming training dates.