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The future of the workplace is flexible

By Anthony O’Brien


‘Working nine to five’ for many of us old enough to remember is more closely aligned with the offices, factories, and workshops of the 20th Century. A phrase also popularised by singer Dolly Parton, working nine to five is giving way to the flexible working arrangements demanded and legislated for, in Australia and New Zealand today.


According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial Survey, the three most essential elements millennials look for from a new employer are pay (51%), culture (57%) and flexibility (44%). With millennials set to make up 42% of the workforce by 2025, Charles Go MIML, Research Product Manager at IML ANZ, says, “Flexibility is becoming a very important topic and will be the norm in the future.” Go hosted an IML ANZ webinar, ‘Navigating the Future of Work’ in April examining the importance of flexibility, the gig economy and the skills managers need to navigate modern workplaces.


It’s worth reiterating that workplace flexibility is enshrined in Australian law through the Right to Request Flexible Work arrangements that form part of the National Employment Standards (NES). This right to request flexible working arrangements applies to permanent workers and casuals employed for 12 months or more.


Catherine Heilemann AFIML, director at the Salary Coach, explains, “There are some eligibility criteria for the Request Flexible Work arrangements such as being a carer, having a disability, being 55 or older, experiencing domestic violence, being a parent and so on.” In a past career at IBM, Heilemann was the first manager to have a virtual team with a mix of Australian employees working flexibly and outsourced workers in China and India.



According to a June 2018 survey from recruiter Hays, the most common flexible working practices employers offer are flexible working hours and compressed working weeks (77%), part-time employment (75%) and flex-place arrangements, such as working from home or an alternative location (66%).


“Some employment situations lend themselves towards greater flexibility,” Heilemann says. “It’s tough for some workplaces to offer the kind of flexibility that companies such as IBM offer because they have people working on shifts and who must attend a location to perform their work.


“Doctors, nurses, teachers, railway maintenance specialists, factory workers and the like must attend their place of work to do their job.” Although, Heilemann says many shift workers can bid for their start and finish times. “This is a common practice with airlines. Moreover, workplaces allow for staggered shifts starts such as at Sydney Trains, with 6 am, 7 am, and 8 am starts at some maintenance depots.”


Billie-Jo Barbara CMgr FIML, Deputy Director of Workforce Planning at Charles Darwin University, adds that her former employer, the NSW Government takes the view of ‘if not, why not?’ She says this encourages employers and leaders to think beyond compressed hours and part-time work towards flexible strategies such as staggered starts and finishes. “This might even be about allowing an employee who currently takes two hours to commute each way in peak times to start later,” says Barbara. “Flexibility looks like a whole different range of things.”



Notwithstanding the pervasiveness of flexible working, the concept appears to have limited influence on recruitment and retention, according to the 2018 IML ANZ Staff Retention Report. When asked the main reasons for resignations, only 6.6% of surveyed organisations listed ‘lack of flexible work arrangements’ as a main reason, compared to 75.7% of organisations who listed ‘to seek a new challenge.’


Moreover, only 7.4% of those surveyed said a ‘lack of flexible start and finishing times’ were factors in resignations compared to 38.7% that listed ‘insu­fficient financial reward. Despite these findings, Heilemann maintains that if an employer isn’t offering flexible working arrangements in some form, “then they probably won’t be winning any prizes as a great place to work.”


Barbara says that trying to implement policies suitable to current and future workforces can be challenging for leaders trying to operate a profitable organisation. “I’ve noticed, for example, more millennials want a portfolio career at the start of their careers rather than the end.” A millennial herself, Barbara has already sat on several boards and been a coach, in tandem with her previous full-time role as a director of human resources with the NSW Department of Planning and Environment.



Concerning staff retention, Heilemann equates flexible working arrangements with a bank account. “While you are depositing, things go well. Retention issues can relate to many things and offering flexible work arrangements to those who value it will add to the bank account.”


Go maintains that flexible working makes it possible for a diverse group of individuals to work for an organisation. “These arrangements support returning mothers and aged workers who need to work part-time or from home, as well as workers with health issues or disabilities,” he says.


Heilemann believes it is possible for older workers to undertake backfills to cover for employees on parental leave. “But for those who want to stay in the workforce, but not on a full-time basis, flexible working is a sensible option,” she says.


As with any change, maintaining the drumbeat on flexible work is crucial. “The IML ANZ 2016 Staff Retention Report found that only 3% of organisations lost staff to resignations because of a lack of flexible working arrangements. In 2018, this number doubled to 6%.


“At the moment, it is only a small percentage of employees who are linking a resignation to lack of flexibility,” says Go. “However, the concern is that both resignations and the desire for workplace flexibility is trending upwards. It’s crucial managers and leaders champion flexible working arrangements.”


IML ANZ itself celebrates the benefits of flexible work for people and organisations in a number of ways, including Chief Executive David Pich CMgr FIML being an ambassador for Flexible Working Day.



An area Heilemann has identified for improvement relates to those leaders who don’t trust their employees with flexible work arrangements. “These leaders don’t necessarily discourage working flexibly but do not encourage it with real intent,” she explains. “I’ve seen leaders in recent times who talk flexible work, but the team says behind their back: ‘oh they don’t like it.’ This discourages people from asking for flexible working. To those leaders, I say: set the guidelines for flexible work. Then let your people have it. Be sure to lead and manage the outcomes, not the hours at the desk working away or pretending to work.”


Barbara subscribes to the view that many employees aren’t aware of the flexible arrangements on other. For example, when Barbara worked in a human resources role for the NSW Government she wasn’t aware of provisions for a career break. “And, I worked in human resources! It wasn’t until I moved to the NSW Department of Planning that I became aware this provision existed.


The conversation about workplace flexibility is not just about women working part-time continues Barbara, “But it is about taking a study break, or the opportunity to try a different career path. Successful workplace policies are dependent on the culture of an organisation and the willingness of employers to enable these policies.


“The smart employers have recognised the research that workplace flexibility will help attract and retain good people. For some organisations, there is a lack of awareness, while the incidences of employers deliberately denying these policies are in the minority now.”

The full version of this article originally appeared in the September 2019 print edition of Leadership Matters, IML ANZ’s quarterly magazine. For editorial suggestions and enquiries, please contact

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