We need to shake up how we define flexible work

On International Women’s Day in March 2016, then New South Wales Premier Mike Baird reflected that non-flexible working “makes no sense in the modern workplace”, and that the option to work flexibly should “be the norm for both men and women”.

Twenty-four-seven consumer demand has led to 24/7 customer service, and for those working in multinationals, this can mean round-the-clock emails and late night conference calls that cross time zones are the norm.

In today’s workforce, ‘flexibility’ is becoming less of an exception, and more of an expected norm. Employers are increasingly being pressured to offer flexibility for their staff, in the interest of becoming more productive and attracting top talent. Indeed, many workers now expect a degree of flexibility with their roles.

But what does flexible working look like in reality?

The concept of flexibility is no longer limited to describing varying hours for parents who need to drop off and pick up children from school. In order to attract and retain the best talent, organisations must provide a wide range of flexible working options to cater for a variety of lifestyles, be it parental caring needs or other commitments outside work.

Read more: Why business leaders like former Microsoft Australia managing director Pip Marlow take their kids to work

The Workplace Gender Equality Agency says that momentum for flexible working is growing, and recognises that “both women and men may have caring responsibilities or other interests while still being committed to their work.”

Across the public and private sector, organisations are embracing the concept of flexible working. But how is this being implemented and managed effectively in practice?

The NSW Government has also announced that by 2019, 100% of NSW government sector roles will be flexible by default, and that a job-sharing register would be created. Baird said that the culture of the workplace needs to be transformed “so that it is normal for people to work in a way that suits their life stage and the needs of their families”. This could incorporate working fewer hours over more days, more hours over fewer days, starting and finishing earlier, working from home, or job-sharing.

Caltex for example has implemented some innovative flexible working arrangements. One of these includes a job share arrangement where two engineers worked three months on, three months off at a refinery to allow significant lead-time for replacement training and succession planning.

Telstra’s ‘All Roles Flex’ policy, saw the company adopt  “a new and disruptive position around mainstreaming flexibility that would amplify productivity benefits, lift engagement, establish a clear market proposition and also enable a new way of working”.

Telstra chief executive Andrew Penn has said that the new system has benefited the company “in terms of diversity, inclusion, employee engagement and attracting and retaining good people”.

Former Woolworths chief executive Grant O’Brien said: “Our business model demands flexibility, but one size does not fit all. We need to make it work for our business and for our individual people”.

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to working flexibly. Organisations must be willing to accommodate individual needs into flexible working arrangements if they are going to remain competitive into the future, and employees have to push forward challenging old accepted models of flexibility to develop a new culture of what flexibility means in Australia.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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