Managers need to be more flexible

by 29 May 2007

HR MUST educate and encourage line managers to think laterally about work flexibility and job arrangements in order to accommodate increasing demand for better work-life balance, according to the UK-based Work Foundation.

The key to dealing with the ever-changing needs and job expectations of employees comes down to providing them with “sovereignty”, said Stephen Bevan, director of research for The Work Foundation.

“It’s all about control and autonomy and giving people a bit more freedom to make decisions themselves within the constraints of the business,”he said.

This sovereignty gives employees more control over flexibility in their working time – when they start their working day and how they manage their time to take care of domestic responsibilities and other personal duties.

According to a survey of 284 organisations conducted by Managing Work | Life Balance International and CCH, 88 per cent of best practice organisations, 60 per cent of government departments and 62 per cent of business services/consulting organisations were broadening work-life programs and redesigning jobs to better accommodate flexible work arrangements.

However, Bevan said that while work-life balance may be a crucial issue for HR, there are some limits as to what can be achieved.

“HR can encourage and promote the cause of flexible working and come up with imaginative policies, and benchmark with other companies to highlight good practice, but the real influence of sovereignty comes from line managers,” he said.

“I think the challenge for HR people is to educate and encourage line managers to think laterally about flexibility, the use of time, how they organise work and design jobs. It is those internal facilitation, education and consultancy roles that HR people can perform.”

Managing employees according to their output, as opposed to input, is essential as some management processes tend to focus too much on competencies, he said.

“HR can help by ensuring line managers are setting targets which are measurable.”

Survey results showed 73 per cent of organisations overall and 80 per cent of best practice organisations continually focused on providing guidelines for leaders to ensure that decisions regarding employee’s access to work-life policies and programs were made fairly.

A further 80 per cent of organisations had achieved culture change as a result of allowing supervisors to support employees and find solutions to issues that work for both the organisation and the employee.

In addition to this, programs and strategies to retain and transfer corporate knowledge of mature age workers are used along with published guidelines and decision-making criteria for implementing and negotiating flexible work arrangements.

“Australia is becoming a much more knowledge-based economy, and much of the knowledge and experience that will drive the economy forward resides within generation X and baby boomers,” Bevan said.

“A big UK experience is that people over 55 years of age must come to terms with the fact they cannot retire early due to our pensions crisis; more people are going to have to work beyond 65.”

Organisations employing older workers will therefore have to cope with their demands for more flexible working and phased retirement, so that it does not become what Bevan describes as a ‘cliff edge’.

On a global scale, he said Australialagged behind Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden in job flexibility. “The issue for Australia is around the acceptance of flexibility in the workplace and having it seen as a legitimate way of working.”


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