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.