Offering flexibility not just ‘nice to do’

by Stephanie Zillman01 Aug 2012

Women will remain underutilised and underrepresented in senior leadership roles until the private sector recognises the business case for offering flexible working arrangements, according to a new research paper by leading academics.

The Managing in a Flexible Work Environment paper, written by the Australian Institute of Management (AIM) and the University of Sydney business school found that flexible arrangements are integral to improving opportunities for women to advance through the leadership pipeline and the retention of high performing female staff members.

The challenge is that flexible work options are still viewed by leaders as a curiosity, a privilege, a nuisance or as an unnecessary cost, Dr Robyn Clough from AIM commented. “Too many managers believe the ideal workplace leader is someone who is able to work full time and is solely committed to their job because they are supported by someone outside of the workplace who attends to their non-work needs,” Clough said. “Such a worker may have been the norm in the past, but this is no longer the case,” she added.

The paper called for flexible work options to be “mainstreamed” within a framework that recognises the business benefits of a flexible workplace and embraces the opportunities of 21st century technology. While facilitating flexibility may have direct costs, such as investment in technology, organisations that have trialled flexible work options often report a positive ROI, improved staff performance or a significant competitive advantage, the paper noted.

The more that flexible work arrangements are mainstreamed within an organisation, the greater the return of benefits. “Mainstreaming flexible work means changing the culture and practices of the organisation as a whole, not simply responding to an individual or small group of employee requests for flexible work arrangements,” the report said.

The potential advantages to increasing flexibility as identified in the paper:

  • Enhanced talent management such as retention of key staff
  • Improved recruitment, especially where competitors do not offer any flexibility
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Ability to create virtual teams of staff from different parts of the organisation
  • Options to increase and decrease the workforce to match demand
  • Increased sustainability for the organisation
  • Reduced need for office space
  • Options to engage highly skilled workers who the organisation could not afford full time
  • Opportunity for leadership within the industry.

The report also cautioned that increased flexibility in the workplace is complex, and does not inevitably lead either to positive or negative results. Employers need to consider the advantages to be gained as well as the disadvantages to be managed in assessing the best way to address flexibility in their organisation.


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