Flexible work is a “baseline expectation”, new DEWR secretary and former Fair Work ombudsman says

james flexible work

Natalie James. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The future of flexible working arrangements has been a focus of incoming secretary of the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations Natalie James, particularly during her almost four years at Deloitte as a partner.

Recently at the consulting firm, James co-authored the Reset, Restore, Reframe: Making Fair Work FlexWork report. Jointly published by Deloitte Australia and Swinburne Edge, the report focused on the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on flexible work offerings.

Speaking on a webinar about the findings of the report, James remarked on the opportunities presented by the new desire for flexible working arrangements, with two in three respondents saying they would forgo a pay rise for greater flexibility.

“Flexibility has gone from a ‘nice to have’ or a preference to a baseline expectation. It’s got to be a core element of the employee value proposition. Particularly in today’s tight labour market, if it’s not, the risk is you’re going to lose people,” James said.

The incoming secretary also commented on the gender divide when it comes to working from home, referencing Julia Gillard’s comments that such arrangements could make women ‘invisible behind the screen’.

“We still haven’t worked out hybrid work. We’re still trying to work out how to get the balance right between the office and work… we need to consider inclusion as we redesign hybrid work in the same way we consider inclusion in all other times, for everything else,” James commented.

James also noted a challenge is translating that desire for flexibility into practical applications by employers, with employees driving what flexibility looks like.

In a statement on the report, James added: “Employers whose approach is to revert to pre-pandemic ways, rather than reframe, risk a disengaged workforce, losing the war for talent, and incurring the costs of replacing experienced workers in the face of labour shortages and shifts in worker expectations.”

The incoming secretary is an adjunct professor at Swinburne University of Techonology. Director of Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce Dr Sean Gallagher congratulated James on the appointment, saying the university was delighted at James’ appointment as secretary.

“Natalie James joined Swinburne’s Centre for the New Workforce (CNeW) advisory board in 2022, bringing her industry experience to the development of new workforce insights that can tackle emerging challenges head-on.

“Natalie brings decades of experience in helping people succeed in a rapidly changing world, working with us to help deliver on Swinburne’s purpose: to create the next-gen workforce now,” Gallagher said.

A Deloitte spokesperson likewise congratulated James on the new role.

“Natalie James has played a key role in building and growing our workplace integrity business and has contributed to the debate on key workplace issues since she joined the firm in 2018. We wish her well in her new role,” the spokesperson said.

The appointment marks a return to the public sector by James, having served as the Fair Work ombud for a five-year term from 2013 to 2018. She also previously worked as the Victoria state manager at the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations prior to going to the ombud’s.

The Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia (ITECA) has welcomed James’ appointment.

“This is a critical appointment for the ITECA membership, and we look forward to working with Ms James on the task of improving workforce productivity, something required to address the skills shortage and to drive a sustainable increase in real wages,” ITECA CEO Troy Williams said.

This article was first published by The Mandarin.

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