Workplace flexibility: What you need to know

flexible workplace
Peter Wilson AM FCPHR


written on September 15, 2016

Workplace flexibility is a term you frequently see in employer handbooks. It’s supposed to enable employees to change their working arrangements. We started workplace flexibility arrangements when we thought the keystone was called work-life balance – a bit of work here on some days and then a bit more personal space elsewhere.

But the influence of the digital world means this state of initial balance has become a constant back-and-forth between work and life. For example, every day we sit near a colleague who receives a text message or two. And as long as the person isn’t a serial offender, most co-workers will cut their erstwhile colleagues some slack and let them fire off a reply.

However, none of us know who they are texting. Is it a customer? A distressed child? Their doggy daycare? A few years ago the policy said not to BYOD to work. Even at conferences, you were asked to switch off. Now, the request is to put it on silent, but remember to tweet. Thumbs up, up and away!

Employers must recognise that to best manage today’s workforce, they need to understand three things:

  • the specific responsibilities and outputs contained or expected within each job;
  • what ‘independent’ work looks like within a job; and
  • what counts as ‘interdependent’ work.

With digital interconnection, a lot of independent work can be done away from the office. Some employers use this knowledge to split single jobs and share them between two or three people. In other cases, employers like Optus, IBM, ANZ and Telstra have declared mixtures of the following:

  • Standard hours that designate time limits for things like meetings and work communication.
  • Nine-day office fortnights, where everyone works from home one day in 10. That means every job is seen to have at least 10 per cent independent work time.
  • All jobs are flex, meaning the employer broadcasts that workplace flexibility arrangements are a justified universal access right.

The US Life Meets Work Institute estimates the benefits of workplace flexibility scatter across several areas. 

  • Economic benefits, such as higher productivity, greater innovation, better levels of employee engagement, better team and overall performance, and lower real estate costs due to decreased demand for office floor space and parking spaces.
  • Customer service improvements from extended service hours and ease of conducting business at customer’s own premises.
  • Employer branding and reputational enhancements. There are more opportunities for employees to be involved in community and CSR programs. This in turn gives the company a leg up in the war for talent.
  • Employee health and wellbeing due to lower healthcare costs, better and more disciplined habits such as less presenteeism and absenteeism, and employees staying home when mildly sick with a contagious ailment but undertaking independent work.
  • Organisational effectiveness, including managing disaster planning, technical outages and inclement weather. All this is easier when employees can retreat to the home space and complete independent work ‘offline’ until everyone can log back on.

Nevertheless, managing work-life balance has also experienced unexpected second-generation problems. Keep an eye out for next month’s Perspective column, where I’ll explore what these are. 

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4 thoughts on “Workplace flexibility: What you need to know

  1. @Peter Wilson, in addition to your points, we can’t forget one of the first components of flexible work arrangements, and that at is part-time and job share. These arrangements still require extensive negotiation in some sectors, and we can’t underestimate their impact in relation to retaining parents (particularly mothers) in the workforce.

    I look forward to the next edition on this topic. Not wanting to steal your thunder, I am sure you will pick up the themes of growing concern about lack of face 2 face collaboration and presence in the office, and trends to often significant investment in creating the Future Workplace.

  2. Thanks @Peter Wilson, great words and I would like to think in the future all organisations with the capacity is able to do support flexible work arrangements that are equitable to all employees. In many cases where there is no confirmed process it is an adhoc basis for some and not all, which can lead to dissent between employees.
    For the one reason alone flexible work arrangements should work, we are all adults, and as such should be trusted to work as expected, though as you rightly point expectations and outcomes must be clear. But this is not always the case with a smaller or developing organisation, even an organisation that has been “burnt” by the abuse of trust. Its about setting the right expectations from the time of employment, and having managers effectively align their communications and responses to the organisations current position. i.e. its a no right now, as we do not have the capacity to monitor, but in time we will have line of site, and can confirm perfomance, things will change, and we will have those discussions with everyone.
    One point I would like to mention is that I have seen a trend over the past few years, in employees believing they have an entitlement to flexible work arrangements, and almost hold an organisation to ransom if it is not met, or negotiated. This can cause the organisation to recoil from the conversation and take a hard line, which has a negative impact to all employees, and detract from new employees joining. We are in interesting times with globalisation, technology, and a changing workforce, that flexible work arrangements must be part of the strategic conversation.

  3. Thanks for the article on an often sensitive and emotive issue. It can be quite difficult to maintain equity in this area, whether it is real or perceived, and this goes both ways. Individuals who would like flexibility can think they are not provided enough latitude for their individual circumstances and others who are in a different situation/role can view their arrangements as being inequitable. To judge each case on its merits is also problematic as onlookers might not know all the associated factors and can again feel they are being treated inequitably.

    My observations are also there are some staff who would expect flexibility from their employer while not actually having any flexibility themselves. And as suggested above, smaller businesses might not have the capacity for such arrangements.

    In my experience there are not many jobs that are fully “independent”. In fact, if an individual thinks that no one else is relying on them for anything and they are not relying on anyone else for anything, then perhaps the job has not been designed correctly. If the occupant takes a period of leave or ceases employment, does that mean the independent work they are doing could discontinue? Is anyone else able to undertake that role if independence means that no-one else knows what that person has been doing? I would suggest that as much as possible jobs should be interdependent, and staff part of a team to ensure there is some continuity in service whether in their job or other jobs in the team. (Succession planning) This then provides some guidance as to whether flexibility is actually workable/achievable.

    Overall I suggest that organisational values, goals and outcomes should form the parameters for flexibility in the workplace and not vice-versa.

  4. Thanks Peter for a thought provoking article on Workplace Flexibility. Consulting with a range of growing and transforming businesses has given me a reliable insight into how some organisations facilitate flexibility. Many offer flexibility however, where they fail is when they do not provide tools and education to support and embed a culture where flexibility is seen as the norm. Some have pockets of resistance from leaders that negatively influence productivity and erode trust of their teams.

    Working with a few high performance organisations the conversation about flexibility begins during engagement of new employees, their leaders already have the skills and motivation to manage a flexible workforce and their colleagues are on board too. This is a strong basis to commence a new relationship.

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