Flexible Work – Myth or Magic?

As we all trudge back to work (for those that have to) it has become increasingly clear, that not only do many individuals not want to trek into and out of offices on a daily basis, but that to attract and retain highly qualified and engaged employees, flexible work practices are a critical component.

Flexible work arrangements are no longer the domain of a single gender either. Recruiting diverse talent is crucial to growth and continued success of organisations and this should have a significant impact on the economy more broadly. How easy (or hard) it will be for individuals to access and take advantage of flexible work arrangement will depend on the leadership of organisations who are willing to identify and understand we are working and living differently now.

In 2021, the WGEA conducted research[1] from the private sector and noted “larger organisations were more likely to have formalised flexible working arrangements compared to small and medium organisations: 94% of organisations with 5000 or more employees reported that they have formalised their flexible working strategy”.  The trouble with this, is that at this end of business, there are smaller numbers of employers.

The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman published its Small Business Counts December 2020[2] and the below table shows that much larger number of organisations in the small business range and creeping into the medium size based on staff numbers.

How can small business provide flexibility and remain competitive?  Is this even possible? For some industries such as those employed in medical or health is it possible for them to work from home? There is no doubt flexibility in working hours and days, but is any employee going to want to reduce their wages or salaries to have less hours?  Perhaps it’s about working longer hours on more days?  Doesn’t that create WHS issues and the potential for more stress or greater outcomes in shorter periods of time?

Getting back to small business!

According to the MYOB SME Snapshot the two main disadvantages of offering flexible work arrangements for small business operators are the difficulty in business planning and the diminished sense of collaboration between staff.[3]

It is suggested that implementing effective flexible arrangements requires integration into the organisation’s culture, structure and norms, otherwise, it can result in additional workloads on top of regular roles (Kelly and Moen 2020). This is certainly an issue in many small businesses that do not have the same culture and structures or much larger organisations that have visionary leaders and HR Professionals to create the policies and practices that will enable flexible arrangements to be adopted.

For instance – in allowing employees to work from home, what WHS Audits and risk assessments are being done to ensure the continued health and safety of individuals.  What about the confidentiality of information and requirements under Privacy legislation? These are not insurmountable roadblocks but for small business this is potentially more money and more time that they might not be able to afford.

What was once individuals chasing careers – and doing whatever it takes – the landscape is changing (or maybe already has).  With an increase in people pursuing flexible work arrangements, to suit their work/life balance priorities, there is no doubt employment and retaining staff is more difficult as it has become more fluid with individuals making significant choices about where and when to work. Ultimately, continuing to impact how we attract and retain staff.

Whatever your position on flexible work arrangements, there is no doubt it creates a trade-off between the key stakeholders, and it is about the balance between the interests and needs of the employee and the organisation.

Introducing flexibility has various advantages and disadvantages and prior to implementing any arrangements organisations should identify both the benefits and consequences for both parties. It certainly should be a two-way street.     

[1] https://www.wgea.gov.au/publications/flexible-work-post-covid

[2] https://www.asbfeo.gov.au

[3] https://insidesmallbusiness.com.au/management/planning-management/flexible-working-a-challenge-for-smes