Changing the language organisations use to describe flexible work will help remove some of the stigma that it is only for mothers, and allow it to become "mainstream", Diversity Council Australia says.
Terms like "work-life support" and "flexible working arrangements" foster the view that flexible work is "special treatment" for a select few, including mothers of young children, and those with significant personal health needs, DCA CEO Nareen Young says.
Flexible work should be "available to everyone for a broad range of reasons - from fathers who want to be involved in the hands-on caring for their children, to those who have elderly parents who need care, or those who want to ease back on work as they prepare for retirement", she says.
Launching a research report on the topic, Get flexible! Mainstreaming Flexible Work in Australian Business, Young says that employers should instead promote "flexible work" and "flexible careers".
Flexible work far from "standard"
The research was conducted by DCA in partnership with The Westpac Group, Stockland, Origin Energy and Allens Arthur Robinson, in order to bring attention to the fact that flexibility is still not standard business practice in Australia.
Flexible work options have been provided by leading diversity employers for some years now, but "flexibility is still not viewed as a valid and legitimate management tool and career choice", it says.
The next "flexibility frontier", according to the report, is the need for Australian organisations to go beyond providing and supporting a range of flexible work options to now start looking at ways they can "mainstream flexibility".
And by "flexibility", it means: "flexible work, including how, when and where work is conducted; flexible careers, including ramping up or ramping down career investment at different life stages; and flexible work and career progression both being possible".
The report outlines 10 "essential elements" of what flexible work would look and feel like if it was mainstreamed in organisations, including:
There is a culture of flexibility that attracts and retains talent - "Flexible work is central to the organisational brand and to the employee value proposition";
Everyone, at all levels, engages in flexible work - "When flexibility is mainstreamed we would see flexible work being engaged in by all demographic groups, men and women, across all types of jobs and at all levels. It was recognised that for this to happen a complete re-think about the nature of work, and both job and career design would be required - it would need an entirely different organisational and managerial mindset. Jobs and careers would be actively designed with flexible work in mind";
Flexible work is evident in both formal and informal processes - A formal policy-based approach would set out arrangements for part-time work and relevant rights and responsibilities based on legislation (such as the right to request flexibility). On the informal side, managers would be empowered, and have the skills, to enter into arrangements with employees, and individuals would have the autonomy to make their own decisions about when and where they work, while taking responsibility for meeting performance objectives;
Flexible work is engaged in for any reason - "Currently the overwhelming focus is on the commonly accepted reasons: child care responsibilities and for some significant personal health need [but this] approach necessarily limits the demographic groups engaged in flexible work".
Advice for employers
Experts consulted for the report identified four key reasons why organisations should embrace flexible work.
They say that by mainstreaming flexibility:
Businesses will be sustainable and adaptable to change;
Flexible work and careers become a pathway to gender equality;
Talent will be attracted and maintained; and
Workplaces will be more productive.
The report says that in order to make flexible working standard, employers should:
Incorporate flexibility into workplace design - Integrate flexibility into job descriptions, job and work design, and teams; integrate flexibility into performance reviews and development plans; assess performance on outcomes, and recognise outcomes can be met in different ways; treat flexibility as a management deliverable; and explore possibilities of technology and alternative work strategies.
Create a culture of flexibility - Ensure those who work flexibly are "accepted"; base relationships and expectations on trust; ensure flexible work is seen as "the way things are done around here"; and challenge the stigma of working flexibly.
Improve leadership around flexibility - Ensure senior leaders: genuinely commit to flexible work; lead by example (as effective role models for flexibility); have an active approach to mainstreaming flexibility; have the capabilities to manage a predominantly flexible workforce; and ensure all staff have the necessary skills to engage in flexible work.
Talk about flexibility - Show the business benefits; redefine flexible work by bringing it to life with examples; illustrate success stories and provide the details to enable others to copy; and show how flexible work arrangements work on a practical level.
Strategise around flexibility - Identify flexible work as a business need; have a long-term business commitment to flexible work; create a strategy for a predominantly flexible workforce as part of workforce planning; and report progress and outcomes as part of standard business reporting.
Make flexibility universal - Foster a genuine acceptance of flexible work by all; ensure flexible work is available to all, regardless of job type or level; and educate clients/customers and the community about flexible work.
Provide resources to support flexibility - Equip people with the tools they need (e.g. IT, team-based processes); provide appropriate resourcing for flexibility; review policy and systems that may impede flexibility implementation; and explore new ways of meeting clients' needs and consult clients and customers about this.
Measure ROI on flexibility - Engage in risk (e.g. not being flexible) versus return (e.g. retaining a skilled workforce) discussions; make the connection between flexibility and increased individual, team and organisational performance; and measure the impact of flexible work and show the financial returns.
Proactively seek flexibility - Look for opportunities to integrate flexibility into day-to-day business operations, and focus on 'why not flexibility' rather than looking for reasons to 'block' flexibility.
Support team flexibility - Consider the impact of flexible work on the whole team; focus on support from within and across teams; welcome team-based feedback on the impact of flexibility; and create flexibly autonomous teams.
Promote career flexibility - Create flexible career opportunities, and integrate flexibility into senior roles.
The report is available for download by DCA members only by clicking here.
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