Make workplace flexibility a measurable success

Ready, willing and flex able

For employers willing to embrace the concept, the benefits of truly flexible workplace arrangements can ignite a business on many levels.

Frustrated by employers who backed down after promising flexible work arrangements, CPAs Christina Smerdon and Debbie Phillips took matters into their own hands this year. They launched Flex Able, a business championing the benefits of workplace flexibility.

In its simplest form, Flex Able provides information, tools and certification to organisations that promise fair and flexible work practices. They choose their partners seriously, relying on a process based on Workplace Gender Equality Agency Employer of Choice requirements.

The end result ensures that the employer is genuine about offering flexible work conditions and is not just paying lip service to the idea.

“There are big cost savings for companies that are willing to embrace the possibility,” says Smerdon, who has already landed ANZ and BP as clients. 

“A lot of people would like to work flexibly, but they don’t want to sacrifice their seniority, responsibility or pay levels.”

Some of the prime reasons that workers want greater flexibility include a better work-life balance, family reasons, fewer interruptions and distractions, health benefits, commuter stress reduction and distancing themselves from toxic office environments.

In a February report, Future of Work, commissioned by Airtasker, 38 per cent of respondents signalled that flexibility was more important to them than pay when choosing a job.

There is clearly a solid business case for implementation with, among other things, cost reductions in recruitment, absenteeism, presenteeism and office space needs, along with measured improvements in productivity, staff engagement and retention, and ability to service clients.

Here are eight steps to a truly flexible workplace that will help you keep ahead of the pack.

1. Break it down

Which jobs are best suited to a less rigid structure? And which employees thrive under those conditions?

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” says Flex Able’s Smerdon, citing the Equilibrium Challenge as an example of what can be achieved. This online social experiment is studying five men in senior roles transitioning into flexible work arrangements.

Often, an employee knows what areas of their job can be performed elsewhere or at another time; however the onus should be on the manager to deconstruct a job into parts before deciding whether it can be completed flexibly.

“Forward-thinking organisations are not ‘offering’ flexible work arrangements to this person or that person, but instead making structural changes so that they are available to all employees and potential employees. It’s about trusting your people to complete their work whether you can see them or not.”

2. Plan a strategy

Smerdon believes that workplace flexibility is a strategic lever, not an employee perk. Many managers struggle to get their heads around the concept, afraid that performance could suffer or something important could fall through the cracks.

Once you’ve decided to go flexible, a strategy documenting terms and conditions should be created. Determine the best metrics for tracking productivity (popular online tools for time management, project management and communication include Toggl, Trello and Slack respectively), and ensure the new strategy is crystal clear to all involved.

“In large organisations, a commitment from the top down is imperative, but sometimes all it requires is an informal agreement between a line manager and employee,” says Smerdon, adding that contracts may need to be rewritten by HR departments.

3. Manage the program

Flexibility needs to be actively managed. In 2013, Yahoo discovered that some of its remote workers hadn’t logged on for months, yet were drawing a salary. Managers need to know when to tighten and loosen the reins, but in Yahoo’s case, there were no reins!

“Flexible work arrangements are work … just done differently,” says Smerdon. “It could be something as simple as changing start and finish times, but meetings need to be planned when the person is there. When they’re not, the employer will need to invest in the technology that makes it possible to work away from a designated desk.”

4. Devise a trial run

Even the most progressive and employee-focused managers share concerns about having employees working remotely.

“Before launching a full-scale flexible work program, give a trial period a go with a group of trusted employees,” Smerdon suggests. 

“Plan to run the trial for a good length of time to work out the kinks and gather real data. At the end of the trial, assess the outcomes and make adjustments before taking the program company-wide.”

Preparing for a trial run, employers sometimes discover pockets of informal flexible workplace arrangements already active. Smerdon believes these should be formalised before sharing the success stories internally.

5. Communicate

Communication is essential for scheduling meetings and job sharing commitments. 

“And it’s good manners to talk to your team about when and where you will be!” says Smerdon, adding that regular catch-ups are critical to a program’s success.

Online collaboration tools like Yammer ensure continuous communication, connecting remote workers to a main hub. Using technology such as audio and video-conferencing, instant messaging and mobile internet is an inexpensive way of keeping channels open.

6. Offer support

Throughout the process, it’s crucial that workers are engaged and supported by management. This support is especially important considering the current stigma attached to working flexibly. In a recent study conducted by CPA Australia, 31 per cent of respondents believed that accessing flexible work arrangements had a negative impact on their promotion chances.

“Roll it out to all employees,” says Smerdon. “The truth is that not every employee will jump at the opportunity because there are still deeply held beliefs that it’s a career-limiting move. As more people see that it works, the more people will use it.”

7. Aim to be results-driven, not hours-driven

“If we recalibrate the conversation away from hours at the desk towards outputs,” says Smerdon, “then it becomes easier to think about when, where and how work is completed in terms of getting the desired outcome for organisations.” 

Focusing on results may change your outlook in other areas. Do you need office space for every employee, every hour of the day? Do you have the most effective and efficient technology to enable employees to work flexibly? Changes may need to be made in office size, technology developments and process simplification.

“Daniel Pink [career analyst, author of Drive] identified three factors that drive people: autonomy, mastery and purpose,” says Smerdon. 

“Having the autonomy to determine when, where and how your work is completed can lead to improved results for the organisation.” 

8. Measure results

Smart companies are now assembling their own customised flexible work policies in the belief that by the end of the decade, work flexibility will be the rule rather than the exception.

“If organisations truly measured results, then we would not be having this discussion,” says Smerdon. 

“They would allow their people to work when, where and how they worked best. It’s not about time at their desks. Perhaps it’s time to question how we measure results for people who work the standard working week?”

In conjunction with BP, Flex Able is hosting an event in Brisbane on 22 July. More details at www.flexablejobs.com.au/job-sharing-professionals-really-work/

Read next: Why more businesses need to embrace workplace flexibility


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