How to make flexible work successful

Managers who allow flexible work send an important message to staff about trust.

Flexible work arrangements offer a potential win-win for both job-seekers and employers, but making them run well needs trust and good management of several key issues, say the experts.

When the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) wanted to hire specialist staff, it knew it was up against private firms offering bigger salaries. The ATO did, however, have a lever to entice people who wanted a better work-life balance: flexible work.

Its opening doors program aims to improve workforce diversity by encouraging people from diverse backgrounds, including established professionals who want to work part-time.

“We are getting some really clever, talented people into the organisation,” says ATO assistant commissioner, individual taxpayer obligations, Justin Untersteiner.

Almost a third of all employed Australians regularly work from home in their main job or business, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics

Once they were mostly women with young children, but today many are office workers escaping a choked commute, mid-career types with older children and elderly parents, or younger people without caring responsibilities who don’t want to work nine-to-five.

An increasing number of people want some flexibility in their working conditions and the ATO’s experience is that many will forgo a higher salary for a shorter workday or the ability to work from home once a week.

Related: Can a 5-hour workday work?

Increasingly crowded commutes are prompting many people to ask to work from home or to travel between work at off-peak times, says City of Melbourne CFO Phu Nguyen FCPA.

Nguyen sees flexible working as a lever to attract and retain staff to the city council’s 1600-strong workforce.

That is not to say the path to flexibility always runs smoothly.

The challenges of flexible working

A clear understanding around outcomes and outputs is vital, says Untersteiner, who often encounters astonishment when he says he works part time.

“This isn’t free of thorns,” he says.

Managers might not be enthusiastic about having employees away from the office, or if a manager works from home too often, his or her team might start to feel disengaged.

Some managers might feel that poor performance will be exacerbated, but Untersteiner says the performance issues need to be managed.

Listen to the podcast: Workplace flexibility: do you dare to work from home?

Corey Hale, director of corporate services at the Victorian government’s Metropolitan Waste and Resource Recovery Group, says it is vital to have a clear understanding of outcomes and outputs.

“You need to train up managers and be very clear on lines of communication. Trust is key,” she adds.

Flexible work tips for employers

Both parties should consider data security when people are working off-site, and ensure that people working remotely still adhere to the organisation’s security protocols.

Organisations need a strong performance plan so there is evidence that employees have delivered on expectations.

“That is critical to success and gives evidence when there are barriers [to acceptance] within the organisation,” says Untersteiner.

Consider other options for people whose jobs do not allow for flexibility, to show you are prepared to be fair. They can, for example, be offered the opportunity to purchase extra leave time.

Flexible work tips for employees

The Fair Work Ombudsman has resources for employers and employees relating to flexible working, which includes hours of work, patterns of working (such as job sharing or split shifts) and location, such as working from home.

Hale says employees considering asking for flexibility should give some thought as to how to discuss it with their employer.

“As a leader, I value it when people have thought about it from my perspective,” she says.

“You might ask to work one day at home but you can say that if something critical to the business comes up you will try to change your arrangements if possible. Go with a plan when you see your employer.”

Flexible working for everyone?

Untersteiner says flexible working won’t be suitable for every position and it is important to have a conversation about how to obtain the right balance.

Managers who allow flexibility send an important message to staff about trust.

Nguyen says employees are more engaged when they feel their organisation has faith in them, and will put in the extra effort when required.

Read next: Working from home: does it work?

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October 2021
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