This was the title of my first article published in the launch edition of Women's Agenda and I think it's a great starting place for change. Flexibility: it's the new f-word. Ask any working mum what matters most to them in a job, and she'll probably say flexible work arrangements. But don't mistake flexibility for a women's issue: it matters just as much to a worker who has elder care responsibilities. And to dads who expect to play an active parenting role. And to members of GenY and the forthcoming GenZ who know little of workplaces without flexibility.
But here's the thing: the vast majority of Australian workplaces are still run by men, and in the top jobs those men still mostly have stay at home partners to keep the home fires burning, and very little concept of just how critical flexibility is to the rest of us.
So how can you bridge this knowledge gap? You can start by telling men the following five things.
- The world is changing, and roles are changing. That women can't have it all is an old story that's been given new life in the recent article by former Whitehouse advisor Anne-Marie Slaughter. But here's the thing: men don't have it all either. Many men are seeking more flexibility in the workplace so they can be involved in the day to day care of their children but either aren't offered it, or are afraid to ask for it because of unsupportive workplace cultures and the fear it will harm their future career prospects.
- Leadership attitudes matter most. Flexibility doesn't have to mean setting up remote working arrangements, or tailored working hours (though it could). Often what matters most is the leader's attitude – and how the leader responds – when life's emergencies arise. It's about being able to call in with complete honesty and transparency, and without fear of retribution, to say you'll be in a little later or need to leave a little earlier. And a level of mutual trust, concern and respect.
- It can work, if you let it. Irrespective of different roles, industries and sectors, employees have a vested interest to make flexibility work, and given half the chance they will. Think your business is different and doesn't lend itself to flexibility? Think again: if a job can be performed by someone else when the incumbent is on leave of any sort at all - annual leave, sick leave, long service leave etc - then it has the potential to be performed flexibly or remotely, on reduced hours or on job share arrangements.
- Clients value outcomes over hours, and employers should too. Provided their needs are met, most clients accept flexibility because it's part of their life too. Working longer hours won't guarantee a more committed workforce, but it will surely be a more expensive one. Just as extended operating hours or more time billed won't guarantee a better customer outcome, but it will surely be a more expensive one. Now, more than ever, is a great time to address client needs and to allocate remuneration – including bonus pools – on the basis of return on investment and not on the basis of outdated models of workplace performance, like who is first in of a morning or last out at night.
- Recognise the hot spots and offer some breathing space. Be aware that 8am is an impossible meeting time for anyone juggling morning drop offs; and yet I'm amazed how many business meetings are still scheduled at this time. Likewise the 5pm-8pm timeslot is the most precious time of day for many working parents, so consider it a no-go zone (even Sheryl Sandberg famously leaves the Facebook in time for dinner!) So let them start work earlier or log on later – but don't make them choose, or they just might not choose you. And while the Fair Work Act gives parents the right to request flexibility while their kids are of pre-school age, it's once school starts and the long day care hours shrink into shorter school days, with a mammoth 13 weeks of school holidays, that the real challenge begins. Add to that increasing elder care responsibility as our population ages, and a Sandwich Generation caring for younger and older family members, and you're just starting to get the picture. Like it or lump it, this is the reality of the modern world; and offering flexible solutions brings with it an opportunity to develop a committed, loyal, efficient and productive workforce.
What does flexible work mean to you? Freedom, a source of tension in the office, or just the way work should be?
This article was first published on Women's Agenda.