Workplace flexibility has long been a holy grail for parents, particularly women, trying to juggle the competing demands of work and family.
We know the brunt of childcare is borne by women and despite regular debate about the issue, we’ve moved at a snail’s pace towards true and meaningful change to the way we work.
However, the arrival of COVID-19 may have inadvertently solved the problem for us. Rolling government-imposed lockdowns have forced employers to radically rethink the workplace. Working from home and flexible arrangements have been part of our way of life for the past two years. At the height of the 2020 lockdown, many Australian workers, particularly women, found themselves juggling work and home-schooling children, and they had to ask their employers for flexibility in their working arrangements to manage both.
We conducted research to determine what workers were looking for in terms of flexible work arrangements. The findings have now been published in the UNSW Law Journal Forum.
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The study was directed at all workers juggling family responsibilities but the vast majority of respondents, in fact, were women.
Their requests weren’t radical; altering start and finish times, temporarily reducing their hours so they could home-school, and flexibility when they did work such as working at night or weekends to make-up hours.
For some workers, not having to commute to work or drop off and collect children from school meant they were able to better balance work and family responsibilities. Others required temporary changes to their working arrangements such as an earlier start or finish time.
Pleasingly, in many cases, participants said their employer’s response was favourable. As a result of their experience during the pandemic, an increasing number of businesses say they are now more willing to embrace flexible working arrangements in the future.
Recent data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency revealed that four out of five employers have a formal policy for flexible working arrangements and 65% said that both men and women are likely to be approved to use these arrangements in the future.
The Productivity Commission also reports that working from home and flexible work has become much more common, accepted and expected by employers and employees.
As the pandemic subsides, making those temporary flexible work arrangements permanent is top of mind and Australia’s historically low unemployment rate is helping.
Competition for talent is shifting the bargaining power into the hands of employees who can demand more flexibility because they’ve proven they can deliver even when working from home. In most cases — pre-pandemic — many employers would not have even considered such arrangements.
While the past two years have been difficult for employers and workers alike, it’s given us the opportunity to rethink how working conditions could be adjusted to better suit women and we should embrace the moment.