A practical guide to workplace flexibility

How to

Flex your business for growth

Over the past few years, our expectation of when and where work gets done has changed significantly thanks to a combination of technological advances, economic and demographic factors. According to Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA) data1, almost half of Australian employers now have a flexibility policy. However only 13.6 per cent have a flexibility strategy, indicating there may be a missed opportunity to align new ways of working with business goals.

The traditional and familiar work model of an eight (or more) hour shift in a single location hasn't changed for generations. It’s ready for disruption. So if you’d like to develop a strategy to maximize the benefits of flexibility for your staff, customers and bottom line, here are some things to consider.

We need to be clear that when we say ‘working flexibly’ it doesn’t necessarily mean working less,” explains Rosalind Coffey.

What is workplace flexibility?

“We need to be clear that when we say ‘working flexibly’ it doesn’t necessarily mean working less,” explains Rosalind Coffey, Macquarie’s Banking and Financial Services Group’s Global Human Resources Director.

“It may mean working part-time, or it may mean working full time hours but starting later and finishing later, or working from home or a satellite office. It could also involve working longer days but a shorter work week.”

And while it’s the key to a diverse workforce, it’s not just a policy designed for working parents.

“By 2025, three-quarters of our workforce will be millennials2 (Generation Y), and the idea of blending work and life really appeals to that generation,” says Coffey. Flexible working arrangements can also enable older workers and those with disabilities to stay in the workforce longer.

However, as WGEA notes in its Workplace Flexibility Strategy guide3, the challenge is to develop flexible working arrangements that do not limit career opportunities, but instead make sure flexibility is a mainstream work option.

The ROI of flexibility

Research shows the profound impact workplace flexibility can have on recruitment, retention, productivity and performance. UnifyCo’s global study found 43 per cent of employees would prefer flexibility over a pay rise4. It’s one of the top five employment decision drivers for men according to Diversity Council Australia5. A Stanford University study6 found people working from home were 13 per cent more productive than their office-based colleagues.

A flexible approach also allows you to recruit staff from other geographic areas, tapping into new skills and talent. Hiring remote sales teams in new regions is one way businesses use this as a growth strategy.

By having the tools and processes in place for working from home, you can better manage business continuity during unforeseen events, such as floods, power outages or internet disruptions. You may also see reductions in building costs, hiring costs and travel expenses.

Harder to measure, but just as significant, is the impact on innovation in your business. “When you can create the environment where all voices can rise, you will be astounded by the ideas that could change the way you do business,” says Coffey.

There is a recognised impact on employee health when they have more control over when and where they work, including lower levels of stress, cholesterol, obesity and heart disease.

“Whenever we make a decision, we first ask how it will impact, help or hinder our client experience,” explains Coffey. “As long as our customers have an effortless, frictionless experience and our work is achieved to the right standard and timeline, our people can work outside the office and in hours outside nine to five.”

Productivity vs proximity: the new management culture

The switch to a flexible workplace needs more than an investment in mobile apps and tools. It requires a significant cultural shift away from ‘command and control’ and towards measuring outcomes.

“This can mean changing the habits of a working lifetime,” explains Coffey. “You need to be really clear with people: here’s what is expected of you – what and by when. You devolve control and let people execute that task the way they want. It involves a great deal of trust.”

Making flexible working ‘mainstream’ also means ensuring everyone believes they can still have career progression while working flexibly. Coffey says leading from the top is critical.

“You have to put practices in place so you don't accidently disadvantage people who are working flexibly. That includes checking your own unconscious biases and language.”

It’s important to separate performance matters from working flexibly. “If someone’s output is not as expected, the starting point is not ‘you need to work in the office now’,” says Coffey. “Look at the reasons first.”

Tools of the trade

Staff working remotely need to have the same access to information and workflow experience as they would in the office. Fortunately, mobile and cloud technology makes that affordable and accessible to businesses of all sizes.

“We all have smart phones and laptops, with apps to make flexible working easier,” explains Coffey. Those apps include staff directories, expense approvals, events and calendars. She says document sharing platforms and multi-party video conference calls make remote work more engaging and collaborative.

Other popular digital tools for flexible workplaces include project management platforms (such as Asana or Basecamp), file sharing (such as Dropbox or Google Drive) and video meetings (such as Blue Jeans or Skype).

There are a few security risks to consider when deploying mobile devices and building cyber awareness among staff7 is key when they are more likely to own the device under a bring your own device policy. Make sure you have automatic back-up processes in place, mobile devices are protected with a secure pin and only use recognised applications on your device.

Redesign your future workplace

If more staff are working from home or on staggered shifts, re-think the layout of your physical office. You may need less space or want to flip the traditional cubicle-to-corner-office model.

Activity-based working is one option, designed to encourage staff to collaborate and network by creating zones tailored to types of work, such as hubs for teamwork. Macquarie’s Shelley Street office is one example, as is Telstra new ‘Future Ways of Working’ space in Sydney8. Staff can work the way they want, depending on the task at hand and are free to move from a desk to a meeting room with Wi-Fi, laptops and mobile technology.

This philosophy is just as powerful in a small business and can open up better communication and collaboration. By removing physical barriers, you can encourage positive changes in work habits and team behavior.

Culture, technology and environment are all key elements of a positive flexible workplace strategy. “This more flexible model of work allows greater access to talent pools and people to perform at their best,” says Coffey. By empowering your people to make choices in where and how they work, you can meet the needs and expectations of all your staff from every generation.

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This material has been prepared by Macquarie Bank Limited ABN 46 008 583 542 AFSL & Australian Credit Licence 237502 ("Macquarie") for general discussion purposes only, without taking into account your personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on this general information, you must consider its appropriateness having regard to your own objectives, financial situation and needs. The information provided is not intended to replace or serve as a substitute for any accounting, tax or other professional advice, consultation or service.