Flexible work

Flexibility is becoming increasingly important for organisations across Australia as they begin to recognise it as a key enabler of gender equality. Attracting and retaining diverse talent is crucial to future-proofing the workplace and the Australian economy more broadly. Making workplaces more flexible and responsive to the needs of employees is a key way of doing this. 

What is flexible work?

A flexible work arrangement is an agreement between a workplace and an employee to change the standard working arrangement to better accommodate an employee’s commitments out of work. Flexible working arrangements usually encompass changes to the hours, pattern and location of work. Flexibility is becoming increasingly important for all employees as employees and managers balance competing priorities in life.

Flexible working is not just for office workers. There are numerous examples of scheduled roles with access to flexibility. Some examples include:

  • Giving employees the ability to design their own rosters with remote access through rostering and shift-swapping applications
  • Flexible start and finish times
  • Combining and sharing roles, for example: four days in an operational role and one day in a role that allows for remote working.

Managers can sometimes confuse some relatively minor and ordinary work adjustments with the idea of flexible working arrangements. For example, someone taking time off as carer’s leave, compassionate leave or parental leave is not the same as working flexibly. These arrangements fall into the same category as annual leave and personal leave, in that they are standard employee rights at work. While part-time work is currently considered to be a flexible working arrangement, the realities of part-time work are often much the same as those of full-time work and may not offer much flexibility around time or location of work. Part-time work, however, does offer flexibility in the capacity for someone to work even though they may not be able to work full-time.

Types of flexible work

Type Description
Flexible hours of work This is where you may vary your start and finish times.
Compressed working
You may work the same number of weekly (or fortnightly or monthly) working hours, compressed into a shorter period. For example, a forty-hour week may be worked at the rate of ten hours per day for four days instead of eight hours a day for five days. Changes to salary are not required.
Time-in-lieu You may work approved overtime and be compensated by time-in-lieu. It can include ‘flexitime’ arrangements where an employee can work extra time over several days or weeks and then reclaim those hours as time off.

You may work at a location other than the official place of work. A wide range of terms refer to working at different locations, including ‘mobile working’, ‘distributed work’, ‘virtual teams’ and ‘telework’. These are referred to collectively as ‘telecommuting’ in this toolkit. 

Note that telecommuting is generally most effective when there is a relatively even split between time spent in the office and working elsewhere. This lessens the sense of isolation that can come from working away from the office. Visit www.telework.gov.au for information about how to make telework work for you.

Part-time work A regular work pattern where you work less than full-time and are paid on a pro-rata basis for that work. Not all part-time work is necessarily flexible in nature, but it offers flexibility to workers who
have other commitments or lifestyle choices that are not compatible with full-time work.
Job sharing A full-time job role is divided into multiple job roles to be undertaken by two or more employees who are paid on a pro-rata basis for the part of the job each completes.
Purchased leave A period of leave without pay, usually available after annual leave allocation is finished. Employers typically deduct the amount of unpaid leave from the worker’s salary either as a lump sum or averaged over the year.
Unplanned leave Informal access to leave for unanticipated or unplanned events.
Flexible careers You are able to enter, exit and re-enter employment with the same organisation, or to increase or decrease your workload or career pace to suit different life stages. This may be particularly relevant for employees transitioning to retirement. It can also include employees who are able to take a ‘gap year’ early in their careers and return to work for the same employer afterwards.
Other choices  Other options about when, where and how work is done, e.g. overtime and having autonomy to decide when to take breaks during the working day.

The Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act) provides different groups of employees with the right to request a change in their working arrangements, specifically the hours, patterns and locations of work. While the FW Act specifies the groups that can statutorily request flexible working arrangements, any employee can approach their employer with such a request, but their request may be dealt with differently as it would not be governed by the current Act.

An employer who receives a request covered under the Act must provide a written response within 21 days. Employers covered by an award must first discuss the request with their employee to try to reach an agreement about changes to the employee's working conditions. A request can only be refused on ‘reasonable business grounds’. 

A flexible working arrangement may involve a change in working arrangements for a fixed period or on an ongoing basis, to accommodate a range of personal commitments.

 For more information on requesting flexible working arrangements, please visit the Fair Work Ombudsman website.

The Business Case for Flexible Work

Attracting and retaining diverse talent is crucial to future-proofing the workplace and the Australian economy more broadly. Making workplaces more flexible and responsive to the needs of employees is a key way of doing this. 

Flexible working is increasingly recognised as a valuable way to attract and retain employees across all age groups and genders. It drives employee engagement and productivity as well as boosting employee well-being and happiness. Access to flexible working is clearly linked to:

    • Improved organisational productivity
    • An enhanced ability to attract and retain employees
    • Improved employee well-being 
    • An increased proportion of women in leadership
    • Future-proofing the workplace

The proportion of Australian organisations in the private sector with flexible working strategies has exceeded 78%. In addition, many organisations have informal flexible working arrangements with their employees. Access to flexible working arrangements is a key requirement of the WGEA Employer of Choice for Gender Equality citation. 

Improvements in productivity

Many studies have identified positive connections between flexible working arrangements, improved productivity and revenue generation. A successful flexibility policy leads to increased employee engagement and performance, which may lead to improved profits for businesses.

In 2017, the New Zealand financial firm Perpetual Guardian trialled a four-day working week on the condition that employees continued to meet their performance targets. The company reported that employees were happier and that productivity had increased by 20%. The company has now made the four-day week a permanent option for all of its full-time employees (SBS News, 2018).


A study by academics from Harvard University documented a working from home trial at a Chinese travel agency called Ctrip, which has 16,000 employees. A number of call centre employees were assigned to work from home for nine months. This led to a 13% increase in productivity and performance. Employees attributed the productivity boost to quieter working environments at home. They did 9.2 % extra minutes per day due to starting work more punctually and taking less break time during their shifts due to easier access to amenities such as toilets or a kitchen. Employees who worked from home also took fewer sick days. As a result, wages for participants rose by 9.9% extra a month due to higher bonus payments. The study also found that workers who had not performed as well at home voluntarily returned to the office environment where their productivity returned to previous levels (Bloom et al., 2015).


SBS News 2018, ‘No Downside: New Zealand company adopts four-day week after trial’, viewed October 12 2018, available: <https://www.sbs.com.au/news/no-downside-new-zealand-company-adopts-four-day-week-after-trial>

Bloom, N, Liang, J, Roberts, J & Ying, J. Z. 2015, ‘Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, pp. 165-218.

Employee attraction and retention

Employees are increasingly seeking more autonomy over where, when and how they work. For many employees, flexible working is a highly desirable workplace benefit.  

Various flexible work trials that have been undertaken have measured the impact on attrition rates. The Ctrip pilot found that employees who were trialling working from home were approximately 50% less likely to leave as those employees who remained working from the office. Other benefits that are attractive to employees include time-savings as well as reductions on commuting costs. The same trial reported that employees working from home were saving the equivalent of 17% of their salary (Bloom et al., 2015).

Studies also indicate that younger employees have different expectations about how they want to work. One study found that millennials expect to work longer than previous generations but they also expect to have the flexibility to work the way that they want to work. In another study by EY, it found that almost 80% of respondents aged between 28-35 reported that they desired the option to work remotely (Manpower Group, 2016). Employers who are looking to recruit and retain talent from the next generation may find that having flexible working options gives them a competitive edge when it comes to attracting employees.


Suncorp bank has made significant changes to its operating model in order to accommodate a more flexible way of working for over 600 of its contact-centre staff. Suncorp has implemented ‘Work at Home Hubs’, which combine home work stations with working spaces attached to regional shopping centres. Contact-centre employees are now able to do most of their shifts from their own homes. Software enables staff to have more control over their own rosters and they can elect to pick up extra shifts when it suits them. Suncorp reports that, as a result of these changes, they have seen improvement in employee engagement, reduction in employee turnover and increased positive customer experiences (Cermak et al., 2017).


Bloom, N, Liang, J, Roberts, J & Ying, J. Z. 2015, ‘Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, pp. 165-218.

Manpower group 2016, Millennial Careers: 2020 Vision, viewed 5 December 2018, available: <https://www.manpowergroup.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/MillennialsPaper1_2020Vision.pdf>

Cermak, J, et al. 2017, Women in Leadership: Lessons from Australian Companies Leading the Way, McKinsey & Co, Business Council Australia, WGEA, viewed 5 December 2018, available: <https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-leadership-lessons-from-australian-companies-leading-the-way>


Unscheduled absences can indicate that employee well-being is low and may lead to staff turnover. 

Flexible working can give employees the autonomy to balance their other commitments such as caring for children, people with disabilities, the sick or the elderly. Flexible working can also help employees to manage their time to allow for hobbies, studying or to keep fit. One organisation found that employees who participated in a work-from-home trial also reported higher rates of work satisfaction (EY, 2016).

A joint study conducted by the University of New South Wales, the Black Dog Institute and the National Mental Health Commission recommends flexible work as an effective workplace intervention. The report found that increased job control was linked to better mental health outcomes among employees. The report also illustrates the benefits that flexible work has for carers of people with mental illness (Harvey et al., 2018). Research undertaken by Beyond Blue identified workplace pressures as a contributing risk factor for high rates of depression among Australian men.

A 2010 survey by Bain & Co found that 94% of women and 74% of men surveyed were interested in flexible working arrangements. Despite this high level of interest, only 46% of women and 25% of men had used or were currently using flex. This indicates that not only is there a discrepancy between interest in flexibility and flex use, it also tells us that women are almost twice as likely to use flex as men (Coffman et al., 2019).

Consciously promoting flexibility to men is a good way to promote gender equality as well as employee health and well-being.


EY 2016, ‘Next-gen workforce: secret weapon or biggest challenge?’ viewed 12 October 2018, available: <https://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/ey-next-gen-workforce-secret-weapon-or-biggest-challenge/$FILE/ey-pdf-next-gen-workforce-secret-weapon-or-biggest-challenge.pdf>.

Harvey, S. B, Joys, S, Tan, L, Johnson, A, Nguyen, H, Modini, M & Groth M 2014, Developing a mentally healthy workplace: A review of the literature, UNSW & The Black Dog Institute, viewed 12 October 2018, available <https://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/developing-a-mentally-healthy-workplace_final-november-2014.pdf?sfvrsn=8>

Coffman, J & Hogey R, Bain & Co 2010, Flexible Work Models: How to bring sustainability to a 24/7 world, viewed 31 January 2019, available: <https://www.asx.com.au/documents/about/flexible_work_models_bain_and_company_2010.pdf>

Diversity & women in leadership

Family and caring-friendly working policies are likely to boost the number of female employees in the workplace. 

There is a harmful assumption in the workforce that women’s priorities change once they have children and that they become less engaged with work. This is known as the ‘motherhood penalty’. Contrary to this myth, research shows that women who work flexibly are just as ambitious as their colleagues (Sanders et al., 2015). Research also demonstrates that companies with more part-time managers have better gender-balance at an executive level (Cermak et al., 2018). This underscores the impact that flexibility can have on promoting diversity and encouraging women to progress through the pipeline into more senior roles. 


Sanders, M, Zenga, J & Fagg K 2015, The Power of Flexibility: A Key Enabler to Boost Gender Parity and Employee Engagement, viewed 04 February 2019, available: <https://www.bain.com/insights/the-power-of-flexibility/>

Cermak, J, et al. 2017, Women in Leadership: Lessons from Australian Companies Leading the Way, McKinsey & Co, Business Council Australia, WGEA, viewed 5 December 2018, available: <https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/gender-equality/women-in-leadership-lessons-from-australian-companies-leading-the-way>

Future-proofing the workplace

Australia has an ageing population and this is expected to have an impact on labour force participation rates as older Australians continue to retire. Overall, participation for all people aged 15 years and over is projected to fall from 64.6% in 2014-15 to 62.4% in 2054-55 (Commonwealth of Australia, 2015).

To meet workforce needs, the Australian government has acknowledged that it is important to increase female labour force participation rates at a national level. Changing the way Australians work and making the balance between work and life more realistic for employees at an organisational level is crucial to achieving this goal.

In 2017, the female wife or partner was employed in 70% of all coupled families with dependents (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2018). The average Australian family has now evolved beyond the traditional bread-winner/stay-at-home parent model. Many workplaces do not reflect this evolution. 

The female labour force participation rate in Australia is still relatively low when compared with a number of other OECD countries, including our close peers Canada and New Zealand (OECD,2018). The examples set by these countries indicates that there is potential to boost Australia’s female labour force participation rates even further. This will help to address the demographic changes across many industries and within organisations as older workers retire. However, Australian families must have the right support and incentives available in order to achieve this. 


Commonwealth of Australia 2015, 2015 Intergenerational Report: Australian in 2055, viewed 17 September 2018, available: <https://static.treasury.gov.au/uploads/sites/1/2017/06/2015_IGR.pdf>

Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018, Labour Force, Australia: Labour Force Status and Other Characteristics of Families, June 2017 , available <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lat estproducts/6224.0.55.001Main%20Features4June%202017?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6224.0.55.001&issue=June%202017&num=&view=

Mainstreaming flexible work

The Workplace Flexibility Diagnostic Tool can be used by anyone to get a sense of how an organisation or employer may be performing with regards to workplace flexibility. For a comprehensive analysis of an organisation’s performance against a range of gender equality focus areas, please see the Gender Strategy Toolkit. For additional guidance and support for understanding and developing flexible workplace arrangements, please see the toolkits below.

Toolkits for flex

The WGEA Employee Flexibility Toolkit helps employees understand what flexible working arrangements are, how to request them, and how to integrate flexible working practices into existing work arrangements.

The aim of this toolkit is to provide information and guidance on how to successfully implement flexible working arrangements to maximise the opportunities and benefits that flexibility brings.

This toolkit highlights the role of the executive team in leading an organisation towards an successful flexible working environment

This briefing note provides guidance on the key features of a flexible working arrangements policy.

This toolkit is designed to assist you with the design, implementation and review of a flexibility strategy and change journey.

This toolkit provides the framework and practical guide to conducting a systematic diagnosis of ‘where are we now’.

Latest news

Whilst this situation is extraordinary, working from home and flexible working arrangements are not new concepts and, in fact, are key enablers of achieving workplace gender equality. The Agency has developed comprehensive resources to help you plan and implement these arrangements. 

Ahead of Mother’s Day earlier this month, the Agency’s Director Libby Lyons wrote an OpEd for the Sydney Morning Herald. You can read the full piece in this article.

When we talk about men and women balancing work and caring, it can be all too easy to frame the discussion in adversarial absolutes. For instance, when we discuss the gender pay gap and inequality in the workplace and at home, some might take the easy option of saying it is mainly due to men focusing on their careers and not “pulling their weight” at home.