Some fads become trends, and some trends become the new normal. The latest research suggests that, for Australia, flexible work has jumped that final hurdle. While not appropriate for every organisation, here is the comprehensive argument for why most should offer it.
It boils down to three reasons. One, people join companies because of flexibility. Two, people quit if they don’t have it. And three, it actually improves productivity.
We spoke to Aaron McEwan, HR advisory leader for CEB, about the organisation’s latest survey (22,000 employees in 40 countries) which showed that in Australian workplaces, flexibility is more important than ever.
1. It’s attractive to recruits
This has been the case for a while. What person doesn’t want to have more control over how they structure their work-life balance? But according to CEB’s global talent monitor, in Australia it’s even more true. Here a work-life balance is the top driver of job attraction whereas globally it’s compensation. Indeed, compensation isn’t even in our top three. For us, number two is location and number three is stability.
Almost paradoxically, one of the reasons for this difference might be that most workers live in Australia’s capital cities, five of which are ranked in the top 20 most expensive worldwide.
“Not only is it expensive to live in capital cities but we’re all being pushed further, and further out. So that means commute times are growing. At the same time, the cost of childcare is pretty full-on in this country,” McEwan says. “With most households being a combination of two working parents with children, they’re finding it increasingly difficult to manage the family responsibilities around work.”
2. The lack of it causes staff attrition
According to the CEB research a work-life balance has been the number one attraction since 2011. Now, for the first time in the survey’s history, it is also a key driver of staff attrition. Why?
It could be that the technology that allows workplace flexibility is cheap, readily available – for most organisations consumer products that their employees already own is enough – and most importantly, employees know this. So it’s harder to justify not having it. Especially since according to Deloitte, employee retention and engagement is the number one problem businesses face.
On the other hand, there’s evidence in the CEB research to suggest that staff willing to quit over flexibility is a momentary trend, grounded in the growing optimism most Australians have about their ability to find a new job – it increased by 2.5 per cent in the last quarter of 2016. So if that optimism were to wane, it could be that employees wouldn’t care about flexibility because they would be more worried about job security. But McEwan disagrees.
“I actually think we’ve reached a bit of a tipping point when it comes to flexibility. For example, the Victorian public sector has announced an all roles flex policy, the NSW public sector is doing the same thing. In the private sector companies like Telstra have led the way. And as employees see it normalised across all jobs, you get to a point where it’s not going to go backwards.”
3. The productivity of flexible employees
A psychological barrier for most businesses even considering flexibility is the belief that employees who aren’t in the workplace are less productive. While that suspicion is natural – who wouldn’t assume that you work more at work – it is incorrect. In fact, there’s some evidence that the biggest concern that HR should have with flexible working from home might be the burnout they experience from never switching off.
In a story we published in February, we reported on a long-running national survey of US workers with a 40-hour work week. It found that those who opted to work at least part of the time away from the office ended up working an average of three hours more per week than workers whostayed at the office.
“And those hours (at home) are probably more productive,” McEwan says. “There is a nice growing body of research to suggest that people work best in intense bursts. So rather than working non-stop for eight hours a day, we work more effectually if we do 45 minutes or an hour and then take a break and keep doing that. One of the things that working from home allows people to do is that they will naturally take those breaks. Even if it’s just to duck in and have a cup of tea or check on the kids. Those are the cognitive breaks that allow them to focus more fully.”
What’s the best way to implement it?
So that’s the argument for it, but how do you implement it?
AHRI chairman, Peter Wilson, has defined the challenge, and we’ve covered how to approach it in a guide. We’ve also examined an international trend that is trying to make it even better for employees.
The final word on why you should thinking about doing it sooner rather than later goes to McEwan: “The ones who take this up now will have first dibs on the best talent in Australia.”