Going flexible: A career killer, despite productivity benefits

Going flexible: A career killer, despite productivity benefits

Yesterday, the Diversity Council released a study into attitudes towards flexible work. It found while many people have access to ‘basic’ flexible work options, meaningful flexible work and careers are still not common practice in Australian workplaces.

Too many Australian businesses stop promoting their workers once they go flexible – working from home, coming in outside normal business hours, job sharing or working part-time – and thus miss out on the talents of many of their staff. This is why Diversity Council CEO Nareen Young says flexible work needs to be “mainstreamed”.

“Leading employers have provided a range of flexible work policies and options for many years now,” says Young. “But flexibility is still not viewed as a valid and legitimate management tool and career choice in contemporary Australian workplaces.”

“This represents an enormous missed opportunity for a more productive and sustainable workforce

“When we talk ‘flexibility’ it’s not only about being flexible with the how, when and where work is conducted,” Young says. “It’s also about all types of flexibility and being able to have flexible careers that includes ramping up or ramping down career investment at different life stages. Flexible work and career progression must not be mutually exclusive.”

Asked if flexible workers are likely to be less committed to a business, Young scoffs: “That’s ridiculous,” she says. “Hours at the workplace don’t equal commitment.”

The experience of most employers is that people who work less hours usually work much harder as they don’t have time to waste, she says.

“Yes, the prevalent attitude is that they have less commitment. But they don’t have less commitment to their work – just to the long hours.”

Part of the perception problem with flexible work is that it tends to be used predominately by women with children.

An advocacy group, The 100% project, last year completed a study looking at the attitudes of men towards work. It found only 39% of men asked for a working arrangement that gave them greater work-life balance at some point during their career.

“We had been told new generation of men would want a different thing,” 100% Project chairwoman Frances Feenstra told LeadingCompany recently.

“[But] we found that while men like to work in organisations that have flexible working policies, they won’t use them.”

“They see it as a career-killer.”

Young says necessity means women are pioneering new attitudes towards the workplace, but men shouldn’t be blamed for being slower in embracing flexible work.

“I think it’s not helpful to label men as somehow not thinking in a contemporary context if they don’t take flexible work seriously,” she says.

“We’ve asked men to develop this mindset over many generations, and so it’s going to be hard to move.”

Westpac, Origin Energy, Stocklands, and Allens Arthur Robinson were partners in the research. In a statement accompanying the report, Westpac managing director and CEO Gail Kelly said 40% of Westpac’s staff used some type of flexible work arrangement, either permanently or occasionally.

Kelly says the bank has had a long focus on being more accommodating towards flexible workers.

“[By encouraging flexible work] at all levels of management and at different stages of their career, organisations become more sustainable and adaptive to change whilst also creating a competitive advantage in the ongoing war for talent,” she said.

Leaders with such views as Kelly’s are significant, according to Young because the drive for flexibility must come from the top down to change the dominant culture of a company.

“A key first step… is to engage senior leadership teams on the benefits of flexibility and how it can be achieved,” she says.

“Instead of just saying ‘No’, organisations need to have an open mind and be creative about the possibilities if they are to reap the benefits. They also need to build flexible work and careers into their business strategies rather than bolt them on as a set of policies, a program or a set of arrangements that are separate to the way the business runs.”

How can a business mainstream flexible work?

1.            Get designing: Integrate flexibility into day-to-day business activities, and into job descriptions, job and work design and teams.

2.            Get cultural: Flexible work is the way things are done around here.

3.            Get leading: Leaders have the capabilities to manage a majority flexible workforce.

4.            Get talking: Redefine flexible work by bringing it to life with examples.

5.            Get strategising: A strategy is created for a majority flexible workforce.

6.            Get universal: Flexible work is available to all, regardless of job type or level.

7.            Get resourced: There is appropriate resourcing for flexible work and careers.

8.            Get ROI: Measure the impact of flexible work and show the financial returns.

9.            Get proactive: Create opportunities to integrate flexibility into business operations.

10.          Get team focused: Create flexible, autonomous teams.

11.          Get career-focused: Create flexible career opportunities and integrate flexible work into senior roles.

Source: Diversity Council of Australia, Get flexible report.

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