Workplace flexibility makes good all-round sense because it works – for organisations and employees. There is ample evidence of the value to organisations and the benefits for employees are clear. By embracing workplace flexibility organisations increase customer satisfaction, lift productivity and can attain ‘preferred employer’ status. For employees, the benefits of flexible working arrangements can include significantly improved work-life balance, increased satisfaction at work and enhanced wellbeing.
Yet, workplace flexibility, sometimes referred to as a ‘flexible workplace culture’, can prove time-consuming and frustrating for managers to implement because of the challenges associated with reconciling employee expectations and desired organisational outcomes. All too often the conversation degenerates into polarised positions in which staff focus on their need for flexibility and managers set limits on what can be accommodated.
The best results are obtained for employees and the organisation when these defensive positions are replaced by collaborative effort and creative thinking about what it takes to create a win-win solution.
To achieve such an outcome managers need to develop:
- broad understanding of the scope for workplace flexibility;
- appreciation of the value employees place on flexibility and
- a specific business case for workplace flexibility.
The scope for workplace flexibility
Broadly speaking, workplace flexibility is about:
- when people work;
- where they work and
- how they work.
Questions of when people work have been, and in many situations remain, central to the conversation about workplace flexibility. Part-time and casual employment as well as flexible working hours, rostered days off and other approaches to adjusting the time people spend at work are common in contemporary organisations.
Less common practices include annualised hours, part year employment and the purchase of additional leave by employees. By way of example, a highly experienced scientist was assumed to have reached retirement age until he pointed out to his much younger manager that he would be happy to continue working for several more years if he could take three months off each year to travel. In another example, a talented young executive selected his current employer partly on the basis of their willingness to allow him to work a four-day week in order to spend more time with his young family. Without management flexibility in these situations, valuable talent would have been lost and opportunities missed.
Technological advances have vastly increased the options for where people work enabling practices such as working from home some or all of the time, working ‘on the move’ and working remotely such as on a client’s site. Flexibility in how people work includes arrangements like job sharing, ‘hot desking’ or ‘hotelling’ as well as technology-enabled options such as video-conferencing, on-line discussion and other forms of on-line collaboration. However, technology does not give employers the right to expect workers to be ‘at work’ 24/7.
One technology services provider reduced office costs substantially by moving to a ‘hotelling’ arrangement in a central city location which was convenient for customers. The risk of employees feeling isolated or neglected was mitigated by regular face-to-face team meetings and extensive use of groupware applications to facilitate on-line collaborative work.
The benefits of flexible working arrangements are far-reaching as are the risks. Implementing flexible arrangements must be accompanied by adequate attention to managing the associated risks.
How much scope is there for flexibility in when, where and how people work in your workplace?
How much of this has yet been realised?
What are the associated risks?
The value of flexibility for employees
The value people place on flexibility can be as diverse as any workforce. Parents with young children value flexibility because it enables them to strike an acceptable balance between career interests and parental duties. Older workers often value workplace flexibility because it permits continuation of a stimulating career whilst also allowing time for non-work interests and eventually a transition to retirement. Flexibility in working hours is often attractive to much younger staff too; for example ‘Gen Y’ staff members who may be absolutely committed to their professional development might also want to devote some of their time to volunteering. Talented staff seek out workplaces which can accommodate their preferences.
It has been shown that when employees feel that workplace flexibility is available to them and improves working conditions, absenteeism is lower, productivity is greater and morale is higher. And the cycle is self-reinforcing – a satisfying workplace culture attracts even more talented people to produce better outcomes.
Developing the business case for flexibility
Discussions with staff about increasing flexibility in working arrangements are far more productive when managers are clear in their own minds what can be achieved from increased flexibility for the organisation. The business case for flexibility is key to effective negotiations with staff about working arrangements because it provides essential context for the discussions.
Potential benefits to the organisation include access to a larger pool of talent, improving the morale of existing staff and strengthening the organisation’s competitive position. When time is invested in developing the business case for workplace flexibility it usually becomes clear that there are multiple benefits for the organisation and for staff. The business case must include reference to the systems and processes necessary to address any risks associated with increasing flexibility such as communication and customer service impacts.
A large public library service had already implemented a range of workplace flexibility arrangements in order to respond to demand for its services and in order to compete effectively for available staff. More than half the staff members were part-timers including some in transition to retirement and a strong volunteer workforce provided services for people with mobility problems. However, the CEO remained concerned about succession planning associated with the ageing workforce. By partnering with a local child care provider the service was able to attract talented younger staff with management aspirations but limited career options due to family commitments. While the CEO led development of the business case for this innovation, it was developed collaboratively by staff across the organisation, all of whom were passionate about the community-building effects of public library services.
What are the potential business benefits from increasing flexibility in your workplace?
The management challenges associated with developing workplace flexibility and at the same time running an effective business are significant. The balance might be rather more easily achieved in small to medium enterprises by flexing responsibilities and functions. The task can be more complex in award-covered operations where a large degree of good will and a carefully structured EBA might be needed to achieve a similar outcome.
Recent changes to the Fair Work Act have confronted some employers with the need to make flexible working arrangements available to staff or face the consequences. However high-performing organisations long ago realised that workplace flexibility should be approached proactively. It is associated with valuing people and creating environments in which they feel motivated to do their best work. There are a myriad of reasons why people perform better when flexible working arrangements are in place. The business benefits and so does the bottom line. This is truly flexibility at work.
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational development and group dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates strategic planning and team development, undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative approach, coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures