Work flexibility a powerful staff retention tool

This article was originally published in the Australian and is written by Mary Wooldridge, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

It was the greatest workplace experiment we never expected to have. Now, many workplaces are reopening across our biggest cities and employers are grappling with the question: what does flexible work look like from here?

Those who get this right stand to arm themselves in the talent wars, especially if the “Great Resignation” trend that has swept through the northern hemisphere is replicated here.

Flexible work, when implemented well, can be good for everyone. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found in June that working from home and spending more time with family and friends were the two most common aspects of life Australians wanted to continue post pandemic.

For employers, recent research from the Productivity Commission found the switch to remote working had not materially affected employees’ productivity – and that productivity could even increase if widespread remote working continued.

Organisations of all sizes have embraced flexible work options like never before, according to the latest Workplace Gender Equality Agency data from the 2021 employer census.

The results, accounting for more than four million workers, show nearly four in five organisations now have a formal flexible work policy or strategy. Two-thirds of employers increased approvals of formal flexible work options this year.

There was also a strong upward trend in the number of organisations that set targets for employee engagement in flexible work, including specifically for men, with the professional, scientific and technical services sector leading the way.

But here’s the catch: merely having a flexible work policy or setting targets is not enough from this point. Once offices reopen and the element of choice returns, employers need to pay close attention to what happens next.

There is a risk of proximity bias; that those who work flexib­ly may be passed over for promotion and receive fewer oppor­tun­ities for collaboration and networking. While there are many actions employers can take to avoid this, here are three to get started.

First, consider who is choosing to work flexibly. Research to date has shown women are likelier than men to request flexible work arrangements to accommodate unpaid care responsibilities.

There are also strong biases that affect men. A study from Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women before the pandemic showed men were twice as likely to have their flexible work requests rejected as women.

They also were more reluctant to request flexible arrangements because of perceived or actual impact on their career progression.

Men can benefit as much as women from flexible options and these perceptions need to shift. Otherwise, the World Economic Forum warns: “This would turn offices into male-dominated spaces and could set workplace equality back by decades.”

Smart businesses are already using flexibility differently, transforming the way it is used and viewed. In the professional serv­ices sector, KPMG and Deloitte have expanded their flex policies to allow staff to work from anywhere– including overseas – to combine with a visit to friends or family abroad. When travel is something many are craving, this policy shift becomes a powerful staff retention tool.

Looking overseas, a British law firm recently mandated a minimum of two days and a maximum of three days a week in the office for its professional workers, removing the presenteeism factor and levelling the playing field for all workers.

Next, employers should remember flexibility does not have to mean only remote working. Flexibility can involve offering rostering options, movable start and finish times to accommodate other commitments, or offering compressed working weeks.

Viva Energy – whose workforce is more than three-quarters male – is shifting well-established rituals such as pre-shift meetings at the refinery, traditionally held in person, to allow the flexibility of remote dial-ins for workers.

Finally, for businesses adopting a hybrid model, these need to come with proper frameworks. Employers need to be intentional about how they design and use workspaces now there’s a choice.

A great example is a US business that has introduced a one Zoom, all Zoom policy to help set the standard for meetings in hybrid environments, so those working from home don’t have to compete with chatter from those in the meeting room together.

The pandemic has offered us a rare chance to truly test the full potential of flexibility. From here, it will be enlightened businesses that realise, when handled well, it benefits everyone.

For more detail on actions employers can take to improve flexible work, see our new Flex Post-COVID fact sheet.