Why we need to be more flexible, in life and work

Chloe Hava


written on November 2, 2017

Challenging our cultural norms is the key to a diverse and inclusive workforce. Otherwise organisations risk being left behind.

Who better to kick off the AHRI Inclusion and Diversity conference than renowned philanthropist Dr Susan Alberti, who shared her experiences facing up to adversity. Alberti, a champion of women’s football, was the former director of the Western Bulldogs and the first woman to rise to the corporate suite in AFL. A dynamic speaker, Alberti has had more than her fair share of battles to negotiate as a woman operating in a man’s world. “I stood up to the bullies for no other reason than it was the right thing to do,” she says.

While Alberti had to tackle overt discrimination head on, it is the subtle, more covert forms that stand out in today’s workplaces. Cultural issues like systemic gender roles and ideas about work are limiting both to employees and organisational growth. As Alberti poignantly put it, “It’s not about me, it’s about we.”

Also drawing upon his personal experiences, Aaron McEwan talked about the importance of flexibility to accommodate people’s responsibilities outside of work. The father of an autistic son, he felt uncertainty when asking his employer for a flexible work program, acknowledging that this is a common experience that many women have to contend with in their professional lives.

McEwan went on to present the business case for flexibility, and predicted a non-flexible workplace would become the number one reason employees choose to leave organisations in the not too distant future. McEwan says believes we are working ourselves into a early grave with our inflexible schedules, which aren’t really productive anyway. Short bursts of creativity followed by breaks is the way to go, he suggests, as we will need to differentiate ourselves creatively from our robot co-workers soon enough!

So what is impeding flexibility? There is too much concern with process, rather than just looking at output,” says McEwan. Flexibility feels wrong, he says, because it goes against our ingrained ideas about what a working day should look like. “If we want to embed flexibility, we need to tackle mindset and systemic issues.”

Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner and convenor of the influential Male Champions of Change group, also talked about the necessity of challenging the ingrained mindsets that affect workplace culture. Jenkins says It’s the ‘everyday’ sexism that puts both men and women into boxes and is a barrier to change. It’s when women are told they have ‘baby brain’, or when it’s suggested to men that they aren’t really serious about their career if they choose to take paternity leave, says Jenkins.

Inclusion in action

The ability to bring one’s whole self to work has become a common cry in inclusion and diversity discussion. In a three person panel, Connie Kuhlman from Accenture talked about their Find your flex program which started out as a ‘bring your kids to work day’ but evolved into responding to everyone’s needs.

“If someone is a member of a sports team and they leave early to go to training, that’s flexibility too.” Real inclusion, says Kuhlman, is about valuing each person’s needs.”

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2 thoughts on “Why we need to be more flexible, in life and work

  1. The health sector is way behind in providing flexibility in the workplace. Although provided for in the various enterprise agreements, the safe patient care act and the rostering requirements and practices in nursing arising from this legislation and the enterprise agreement place limitations on the ability of organisations to offer flexibility in a way that may be possible in other industries and organisations.

    Obviously safe patient care is vital, but the health sector and relevant unions should be able to look at different ways of doing business that ensures safe patient care, while giving employees greater flexibility having regard for their responsibilities outside of work.

  2. As a small business owner and mother, I do find that this issue is a difficult one, especially as our business is bricks and mortar with face to face staffing requirements. For me to provide flexible working arrangements for all my staff consistently this often leaves us as a business, left in the lurch and understaffed. Which then means it falls to me, the business owner to fill the gaps left when staff don’t fulfill the shifts they were employed to fill in the first place. When is requesting flexiblity too big of an ask? Seems a lot of these new ideal guidelines just don’t cater for or acknowledge the small business owner.

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