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The ‘F word’ businesses need to say (and do)

Flexibility. To many business owners this may sound like a swear word. The prospect of having employees who are not working in the office or not available during work hours on certain days could appear to be more of a hindrance than a help. But if entrepreneurs and small business owners want to attract and retain top talent, and more specifically women, embracing flexibility is the most important thing they can do!

The essential nature of flexibility is the main finding of research conducted in December 2015, by FlexCareers, an organisation connecting people who want flexible work with progressive employers across Australia. The research was aimed at finding out what Australian employers could do to make their roles more attractive to working mothers, a demographic that is one of the most under-represented. The research, conducted both online and with focus groups, discovered that only 11% of working women have the ideal flexible work arrangement. Put differently, almost 9 out of 10 women who responded, do not have the flexibility they would like.

This figure, whilst alarming, is not surprising. It does raise the issue of what flexibility really means? According to the Australian Institute of Management there are 17 flexible work practices ranging from job share or working from home, to working different hours at different times of the year, e.g. longer hours during school term and less hours during school holidays.

With so many different flexible work options, it is a wonder that more women do not have the right flexible work arrangement. The question then becomes, why not? Is the lack of flexibility a function of businesses not offering work arrangements outside of the standard 9 to 5, Monday to Friday or are women simply not requesting the flexibility they need to best support their work and personal commitments? Either way, it needs to change.

Here are some of the the merits of flexibility from an economic, social and gender perspective:

  • Economic: offering flexibility will enable greater participation by groups who have previously been excluded or marginalised – people with disability, people with caring responsibilities, or people who have other commitments – enabling talented people to make a greater contribution to the workforce and our shared economic wealth.
  • Social: the impact of a flexible workforce means people are back in the driver’s seats of their lives – balancing everything that matters in a way that works with their individual aspirations.
  • Gender: specifically, for women with family responsibilities, it would mean not trading their career for meagre flexibility at the point where development is so important.

According to the FlexCareers research, working mothers are crying out for flexibility and claim it is the single most important factor in relation to career choice and the one thing that would make life easier as a working parent. Women currently not employed, are very clear that a lack of flexibility is the main reason they are not working.

Opportunities abound for businesses who genuinely embrace flexibility, in all it’s forms. To start putting the ‘F word’ into action businesses need to:

  • Rethink flexibility and consider all options – especially those that work well for customers!
  • Really get to know each employee, to understand which flexibility is most relevant
  • Clearly communicate flexible work opportunities – to existing employees and in job adverts
  • Train their leaders to lead diverse and flexible teams
  • Shift the internal culture to make flexible work options the norm and not the exception

By offering flexibility, businesses will tap into a previously underutilised talent pools, who, without flexibility, are unable to re-enter the workforce or reach their potential, but with flexibility will be the most loyal employees on the team. Flexible workers are also known to most productive members of any organisation. On the flip side, a flexible workforce allows businesses to scale up and down according to needs of customers, time of year and market fluctuations. It gets the thumbs up from government organisations like Workplace Gender Equality Agency, and it may just prove to be an absolute competitive advantage in getting the very best people on your team!

How has your business embraced flexible work arrangements?

About the author:

Rhonda is Chairwomen of FlexCareers, recognised as one of Australia’s foremost experts in human resources and specifically in leadership, diversity and work design. A former HR Leader of the Year and Telstra Business Woman of the Year, Rhonda’s career and experience have spanned senior roles in four large multi-nationals (including BHP, Sara Lee, Luxottica and CBA), across four continents (Europe, Asia, USA and Australia).

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