by Adam Hall
Flexible working options have become mainstream. It’s no longer largely focused on parents (and, for that, read ‘women’) with children.
Employees are increasingly seeking meaningful work but combine it with the other priorities in their lives. Australian organisations have recognised that flexible working arrangements are a major part of the war for talent, and the need to increase diversity – not just attracting and retaining women but also to appeal to millennials and digital talent. Telstra has led the charge here, declaring ‘all roles flex’.
Further, the right of employees to request flexible working has recently been enshrined by a Fair Work Commission requirement for employers to give detailed reasons if they refuse such a request.
But many small-to-medium companies (SMEs) and operations-focused organisations (such as manufacturing, construction, and mining) have yet to embrace the value that flexibility can bring to both their employees and their business. The scale of their operations and shift structures are seen as obstacles.
So what is that value?
The Willis Towers Watson Global Workforce Study in 2016 examined the experience of employees working in various types of flexible arrangements. It clearly demonstrated that employees working flexibly have a more positive overall experience, significantly higher levels of sustainable engagement and lower turnover intention.
For Australian employees working flexibly, the study found 35% were highly engaged, compared to 28% on average and 23% of employees who did not have flexibility. We see similar benefits in a range of areas, including intention to stay, perceived stress, performance and leave.
When we combine this with the well-demonstrated relationship between higher levels of sustainable engagement, productivity and financial performance, we can draw a direct line between flexible working and company performance.
These general findings have been replicated in many individual client studies. In one example, those with formal flexible arrangements were more significantly more positive than average about all aspects of their experience including leadership, inclusion and safety and wellbeing. The biggest benefits were seen in feelings of enablement, adapting to change, teamwork, development opportunities and performance focus.
Our client studies also show that companies offer various kinds of flexibility depending on the organisation, culture, the work and the workforce, and we see differences in how the kind of flexibility relates to the most positive experience. In some contexts, formal arrangements (part time, structured work-from-home arrangements, early start, or early finish) work best, while in others ad-hoc flexibility results in a more positive experience. To cater for the full diversity of their workforce, organisations will need to offer and consider a range of options.
Equally, our studies show that not having flexibility creates a negative experience. Feeling that you can’t ask for flexibility or having a request denied has a hugely negative impact. The cost to the organisation in terms of lost productivity, from underperformance, low engagement and high stress, and in turnover risk for these employees is substantial.
The case for flexibility contributing to stronger attraction, engagement and retention and associated financial benefits and is clear cut, but what about the implementation challenges for SMEs and in operational environments? In our experience there are few organisations that cannot implement flexible working in an appropriate form, but some will require more creative thinking than others.
For flexible working to be effective for any organisation, it’s not just a matter of writing a policy – it requires culture change. There are (at least) four key things required for flexible working to succeed:
1) A culture of trust
2) Valuing of outputs over inputs
3) Effective leadership at local and senior levels
4) Technology enablement.
Employers have to start flexible working with a mindset of trust; that employees will do the right thing, be available when they are needed and deliver what is expected. Employees who don’t live up to this trust
need to be managed, but the system must be designed for those doing the right thing, not to prevent people doing the wrong.
Related to trust is valuing the output that is created, not the time spent creating it. Organisations and leaders need to let go of controlling when people work, and focus only on the output created that meets the business and customer needs.
To achieve this, you need to have immediate managers who are capable to give trust and set clear expectations, and senior leaders who can model and reinforce the culture of flexible working. It is a top-down approach, led by example.
Technology now enables a seamless connection for those working flexibly - laptops/tablets, video calling and instant messaging (such as Skype) and work collaboration tools (such as Slack), so that they are reachable, easy to ‘see’ and not disconnected from their organisation. The cost of this technology should not be an impediment to any business.
Those organisations who are in more challenging operating environments can derive inspiration from the solutions to operational challenges as illustrated by Telstra in its operational workforce, Multiplex in the construction industry and BHP in mining.
Since making a commitment to improve the gender balance of its workforce, BHP has implemented a range of actions, including encouraging an increase in the uptake of flexible working.
Fiona Vines, Head of Inclusion & Diversity, BHP provided some insights into this approach: “There is clear understanding at BHP that flexible work promotes greater workforce diversity. We created a set of ‘flex principles’ to clarify what is meant by flexible working at BHP. Since these were introduced, we have seen an increase in the number of employees embracing flexible work arrangements; 46% of our people, both operational and office based, say they now work flexibly with a further 8.6% indicating they plan to do so over the next 12 months.”
The impact of this promotion of flexible working is not limited to office roles or women. Fiona Vines further noted: “Flexible work arrangements are being used by our commuter and residential employees at our operations, through flexible rosters and job share arrangements. This has challenged the prevailing mindset that flexibility is only available to office-based employees. And it has had a big impact on men in our organisation, many of whom never imagined flexible work could be possible; 70% of people working flexibly at BHP are men.”
For those who are yet to implement flexibility into their work environment, the time to act is now. The presence of flexible working is fast losing its status as a positive differentiator for attracting talent and is becoming a must have. Without it, organisations will be unable to compete for the best talent - especially in-demand digital talent.
Adam Hall is the leader of Willis Towers Watson’s Talent & Reward business in Australasia and is passionate about building sustainably successful organisations that are inclusive of diversity and support the wellbeing of their employees.