Flexible work, sometimes called idiosyncratic deals or i-deals, is becoming increasingly popular in Australia, with employees seeking better work-life balance. But they often require a shift in how your workplace functions. For this reason, it's important to understand the flexible work arrangement best practices you should be following before implementing new ways of working. We'll outline these below, but first, what are the benefits of offering flexible work?
The benefits of flexible work
According to research from Morgan McKinley, 97% of professionals in Australia believe the option to work flexibly has a positive impact on their productivity. A study released in Australia by Ernst & Young in 2013 also found women working flexibly waste less time at work than other workers, and that creating more such roles would result in a $1.4 billion a year benefit in terms of recovering lost wages.
There are also benefits for employers, such as reducing overhead costs and encouraging more sustainable business practices.
But with these benefits come challenges: managing performance across employees becomes more problematic, collaboration becomes more difficult and having a more mobile workforce can potentially erode the company culture.
However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't offer flexible work arrangements to your employees. In fact, according to one survey, as many as 4 in 10 Australians said they would leave a job if not offered the flexibility they needed. It is imperative, therefore, that employers find a way to balance both the needs of employees with those of the business or risk losing good staff.
Finding this balance can in itself be an added challenge for employers. According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, flexible work arrangements include changes to:
- Hours of work (e.g. coming in and leaving an hour earlier)
- Patterns of work (e.g. having split shifts or job sharing)
- Locations of work (e.g. working from home)
In other words, there is no single blueprint for how a successful flexible working model will look, as it depends on the particular circumstances of the employer and employee. But that doesn't mean there aren't any guidelines.
Here are 5 questions based on flexible work arrangement best practices that will help you create a model that benefits everyone.
1. What are they asking for, and why?
There are myriad reasons why employees might request flexible work arrangements, such as having to manage an illness or disability, or needing to fulfil responsibilities as a carer. In fact, a recent study led by the Australian National University found that working parents who experience poor work-life balance and high-stress environments can put their children at risk of developing mental health issues.
In each case, employees will have very particular needs. For example, a working parent might need to leave earlier in order to pick up children from child care, or an employee with a disability might need to work from home more regularly to help relieve the stress of a long commute.
Employers, therefore, need to weigh each request, and the reasons for that request, on an individual basis.
2. Will this negatively impact other employees or the company culture as a whole?
When considering implementing a flexible working arrangement for an employee, employers need to think about the impact the arrangement will have on other employees.
- If an employee requires a reduced workload, consider whether other employees will have to work more to cover for them.
- If an employee is less accessible, consider whether this will impact another employee’s ability to do their job.
It is also important to consider the company culture as a whole. If it is highly dependent on collaboration (you regularly hold face-to-face meetings, perhaps with clients, and there are certain hours employees have to be in the office), you may need to place a limit on your flexible work policy.
In many cases, it can be helpful to discuss the arrangements with the entire team, and have everyone collectively decide what might work best. Not only will this be perceived as fairer by employees, but you will likely come up with a much better solution than you would have on your own.
3. Is there an alternative arrangement that could work better for the business?
As mentioned, there are almost as many flexible work models as there are employees, so if an employee makes a request that you don’t feel the business can accommodate, rather than simply saying no, think about whether an alternative arrangement could be made.
For example, if an employee needs to work fewer hours during the week, rather than simply reducing an employee’s workload, perhaps a job-sharing arrangement would work better for the business.
Showing that you are really taking employees’ needs under consideration will make them feel well looked after, leading to higher employee retention and productivity.
Don’t forget that arrangements can also be agreed upon on a trial basis so that you can see first-hand how the arrangement will work in practice and make amendments down the track should any issues arise.
4. Do employees have the technological tools needed to support them?
Technology is key to ensuring the success of a flexible working arrangement, so consider what your team needs in order to operate at its peak, whether it’s a collaboration tool like Slack or Basecamp, a video conferencing tool like GoToMeeting or Bluejeans, or a cloud-based document management solution like those provided by Kyocera. These tools ensure your team can stay connected and productive, no matter where they are.
5. How else can I facilitate flexible work?
In order for flexible working to be successful, the company culture also needs to adapt to embrace these new ways of working.
A study by the NSW government’s Behavioural Insights Unit suggests that even these three simple low-cost interventions can be effective in terms of encouraging a shift in workplace norms:
- Changing default calendar settings to condense the times employees are shown as available for meetings, to encourage flexible start and finish times.
- Prompting managers to discuss and model flexible working, by, for example, arriving and leaving early.
- Running a team-based competition, where teams win points for arriving and leaving outside of peak times, and demonstrating other forms of flexible working, such as part-time work or working from home.
Setting clear expectations for employees is also important, and may require a shift to measuring performance by KPIs rather than hours worked.
When done thoughtfully and by implementing flexible work arrangement best practices, this way of working can be a win-win for both the employee and the employer.
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