Flexible work practises have long been on the agenda but many organisations struggle to implement them. Associate professor in the Faculty of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University, Maryam Omari FAHRI shares some of the latest research on the topic.
Q. Do you think Australian organisations are embracing workplace flexibility?
Based on my experience and research, there’s been a lot of talk about the use of flexible work practises, and some action, but most organisational cultures are still far too conservative to fully embrace them. When the labour market has low supply and high demand, (as Australia experienced during the resources boom), organisations bend over backwards to attract and retain the best talent. In this environment, skilled employees are aware that they’re rare commodities and are able to demand a range of benefits, including flexible work practices. With the downturn in the economy, the balance of power has shifted to employers, to what they see as necessary to offer in terms of workplace benefits. Much of it comes down to organisational leadership and culture, and what type of employees an organisation wants to engage and retain.
Q. What recent studies can you point to indicating that staff morale, productivity and retention rates are improved by offering flexible work practises?
One of my PhD students, Heather Dawson-Howard, is conducting a study of flexible work practises in e-health settings. Early findings have demonstrated that there are significant benefits to staff, organisations and the client base. However, there are also risks that need to be mitigated. Often the full benefits of the arrangements aren’t realised due to poor planning, quick implementation and lack of review processes to identify and address issues.
Q. Where does HR struggle when devising and introducing flexible work policies?
As mentioned already, the key success factors are leadership support, appropriate organisational cultures and good planning. Often the full benefits aren’t realised. Often such policies are used as a recruitment and retention tool, but in reality, access to and use of programs is limited. For example, in earlier studies, I found that the policies are equally open to male and female employees, but uptake is limited among males due to perceptions that those who make use of the arrangements are ‘soft’ or ‘weak’. Disproportionate use of the policies by women, and those with families and caring responsibilities, creates resentment in the workplace among people who can’t access them.
Q. There can be tension between the level of flexibility for staff and the goals of the business. How can an organisation help resolve this conflict?
There will always be tension between organisations’ goals and objectives and those of their employees. The key is to ensure close alignment between the two where possible.
Organisations with conservative cultures by nature will focus on presenteeism. That is, the thinking that people should be at work to actually work. We all know of people who come to work, but engage in activities other than work to pass the day. Studies have shown that flexible practises can allow employees to better balance their work and home life, in turn improving satisfaction and engagement, resulting in further positive organisational outcomes.
Keys to successful flexible working programs include:
- Having a champion.
- Developing a culture of trust and mutual respect.
- Proper planning and evaluations to assess the benefits and degree of success, and share the findings with organisational stakeholders.
- Ensuring senior leaders lead by example.
Q. What trends are on the horizon?
The ageing population will create unique challenges for the economy and organisations. Older employees will need to be encouraged to stay in the workforce for as long as possible. However, they’ll need access to non-standard work arrangements to continue.
The need for access to flexible work policies will also increase as young people delay starting families. This will often coincide with elder care responsibilities for many, resulting in a double hit, and at both ends. Access to flexible working, be it temporal (in the hours worked) or spatial (where work takes place, as in teleworking or home-based work), will be critical for employees balancing their competing priorities.
Another often little considered factor is environmental concerns. Flexible working, such as teleworking, can have significant financial benefits for employees, but also result in lower levels of commuting, in turn impacting on pollution levels.
Australia is a vast and sparsely populated country. People in regional areas are often unable to access the same levels of services or work as their city-dwelling counterparts. Alternative patterns of work can assist this group to more readily participate in the workforce (for example, through remote work) and access similar levels of service and benefits.
Urban sprawl, traffic congestion and poor infrastructure and public transport are other significant factors that can result in different tiers of workforce. The need for long commutes may be a deterrent in people seeking choice employment opportunities in main centres. Here again, flexible working can help workforce participation.
Finally, changes in societal values and a 24/7 service mentality require round-the-clock access and services. This won’t be possible without the use of alternative work arrangements.
All of these factors will eventually result in a paradigm shift in terms of our traditional views towards work, its arrangements, location and time.