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Flexible working conditions, are employers coming to the party?

The increasing desire among many employees to achieve a balance between work, home and other interests has led to a corresponding increase in expectations for more flexible work conditions. But are the employers coming to the party?

We are seeing a small but steady increase in requests for more flexible working hours and conditions, including working from home, part-time options, job sharing and remote working. While many such requests come from working parents who want to spend more time with their children, more work flexibility is also a growing priority among other groups.

More people are caring for elderly family members and need the flexibility to allow for this.  It’s also now more ‘acceptable’ for employees to request temporary flexibility during periods of personal challenge or chronic illness. Increasingly, however, requests to vary the hours or days of work are all about lifestyle.

During the GFC, many businesses managed by reducing employees’ working hours to achieve the dual goals of keeping them employed and reducing costs. However, as economic growth returns and companies are in a position to move workers back to pre-GFC arrangements, some employees have realised that they value the freedom and flexibility of a four-day week or a nine-day fortnight more than the extra 10–to-20 percent of salary.

The business lag

There is, however, definitely a disconnect between this rise in demand and the business response. Whether this is due to business culture generally, or Australian business culture in particular, is debatable. However, the fact that Australians work some of the longest hours in the world may influence our tolerance levels for those who opt to work less.

A request to work flexibly can be perceived as a lack of dedication or career ambition. This perception ignores the business benefits of having employees that are happy, engaged and focused on their work because their lives outside of work are taken care of.

There’s also a need to shift the perception that the only ‘good’ flexibility is the kind that helps companies manage costs, rather than as a highly effective means of retaining and attracting talent.

The pitfalls of ignoring demand

Recent drops in unemployment and increased commercial activity indicate that we are heading back to the pre-GFC predicament of a candidate-short market. And companies further limit their attractiveness by treating requests for flexible working conditions as an imposition. Yet this is the kind of deal-breaker that sees potential or current employees voting with their feet and seeking the flexibility they want somewhere else.

At Talent2’s NSW offices, around 25 percent of our recruitment consultants do not work five-day weeks, or five days in the office. We are keenly aware that, if we did not offer this flexibility, we would risk losing a group of highly experienced and valued people. And, in challenge to perceptions on dedication, two of my highest performing consultants are in this group.

Remote networking and smart phone technology provides the opportunity to revolutionise the way that people work and connect with their employer and businesses must be mindful of this.

Solutions for employers

The upshot is that business owners and managers should know that, when it comes to the area of flexible working solutions, they ignore it at their peril. In order to attract and retain a diverse, talented workforce in a candidate-short market, businesses must work harder and more proactively on flexible packages.

They should be making a conscious focus to respond to the growing interest in flexible working conditions and show their openness to it by encouraging unrestricted and honest dialogue with their employees. Lack of response or acknowledgement, unconscious or not, will be viewed as being unapproachable or unwilling to consider these opportunities.

Consider developing guidelines or policy on flexible working, so existing staff know where they stand. Ask for employee input to these guidelines to ensure they are hitting the mark. Having guidelines in place also ensures that hiring managers are better equipped to respond to questions from prospective employees during interview, and they can also be displayed in job advertisements or within the company website.

It’s also important to understand that there are no ‘one size fits all’ solutions when it comes to flexible working arrangements. Just as people differ in personality and working style, so do their working needs. Do not be tempted to push the same options onto people where they are not needed or don’t provide a good fit for what is required.

Options could include altered work hours, such as early starts and finishes, agreed days working from home, or reduced hours and reduced responsibilities upon return from parental leave or during a period of elder care. Staff might value the opportunity to ‘buy’ additional holiday leave or be awarded an extra week off to recognise tenure. Ignoring this input can result in solutions not fitting the people working for you, making them more likely fail.

Managing flexibility

When you enter into a flexible working arrangement with a staff member, it is important to be very clear on both the business’ and individual’s expectations. There should be documented agreement on the employee’s core working hours, whether their availability will be reduced or changed in some way, the key deliverables relating to their role and what support they will need from their manager and other staff.

If a staff member is spending more time out of the office, it becomes even more crucial to set up and observe regular meetings with their line-manager or team. Flexible workers must be kept in the loop when it comes to business activity so companies need to move beyond only having face-to-face meetings.  As with any other staff member, ample time should be allocated to focus on their developmental needs and career progression. Also important is making sure they have appropriate support in terms of both staff and technology.

The bottom line is the best employers do not see requests for flexibility as an imposition. Rather, they know that engaged staff generate more revenue and that increasingly, engagement and flexibility go hand in hand. They also know that greater flexibility can be more cost-effective, because a more flexible pool of resources provides greater ability to respond to fluctuations in demand. So, what are you waiting for?

–Nicholas Tuckfield is NSW general manager for HR company Talent2.

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