I benefit from flexible work practices.  

I work an expanded week (3 days spread over 5) and telecommute to my office in Sydney from far northern New South Wales. This works well for me and, given the right circumstances, flexible work practices could work well for the majority of Australians if traditional corporates allow and plan for it.

What do Flexible Arrangements Look Like?

Flexible arrangements are, loosely speaking, anything that allows an employee to set their hours, noting that these hours usually differ from the typical 9 am to 5 pm workday. 

Flexible working arrangements can include things like:

  • Staggered start and/or finish times;
  • Part-time work;
  • Job sharing;
  • Telecommuting;
  • Hot desking;
  • Compressed hours (for example, working longer days over four days and having a three day weekend);
  • Expanded hours (such as working three days over a five day week to allow flexibility for school drop off and pick up times);
  • A graduated return to work after maternity or sick leave; and
  • Purchased leave (this involves employees taking an extra four weeks leave per year by being paid the equivalent of 48 weeks salary over 52 weeks, noting this is particularly useful for parents with school aged children).

Every employee has a unique set of circumstances, and as such, employers should tailor flexible arrangements to individual situations.

The Fair Work Act 2009

We now turn to consider how many employees in Australia can access flexible arrangements. Certain employees have the right to ask for flexible work arrangements under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (FWA) and the National Employment Standards (NES). Provided they have worked for their employer for longer than 12 months in a permanent full or part-time capacity, the following categories of people can ask for flexible work arrangements under the NES:

  • Parents who have the care of children under school age;
  • Parents who have children under the age of 18 with a disability;
  • Carers;
  • Employees with disabilities;
  • People 55 years or older; or
  • An employee experiencing (or caring for someone who has experienced) family violence.

Employers can decline a request for flexible hours on “reasonable business grounds” but must first consider the request. Admittedly the legislated right to request flexible work hours in the FWA is a good start, it’s not as comprehensive as it could be. Employees who do not meet the criteria set out above do not have the right to make the request.

Do Flexible Arrangements Work?

Earlier this year, Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women surveyed 1030 business, government and not-for-profit organisations as to flexible work arrangements for The Power of Flexibility report and found that less than 50% of workplaces have a flexibility policy. On the flip side, those that participated in the survey and benefited from flexible work were said to be four times happier regarding career progression and work/life balance than those without flexible work arrangements.

When arguing for flexible working arrangements, consider the following benefits:

  • Increased employee morale/job satisfaction;
  • A decrease in absenteeism; and
  • Greater productivity.

However, the benefits are only tangible if the employee and the employer are both committed to making part-time arrangements work and if the role lends itself to a flexible arrangement. For example, a junior staff member who needs a high level of supervision may not be able to work from home unsupervised. Comparatively, a senior staff member with a high degree of autonomy can access remote working arrangements.

Employers, arguably, can also benefit from flexible arrangements where workers work remotely some or all of the time meaning that they need to provide less office space in busy CBD areas and can use space-saving devices like hot desking.

There is some conjecture that men have been slower to take up flexible arrangements than women because there is a stigma attached to it. The Power of Flexibility report also looked at this issue and cited case studies where men were afraid to request part time hours as they had been told this would impact their chance of promotion.

The report went on to find that flexible work will only work if both genders engage. This is certainly the case and the more men that take up flexible work, the more it will normalise.

In summary, The Power of Flexibility report found that to ensure these arrangements work we must:

  1. Make flexible arrangements the standard for every role;
  2. Ensure both women and men take up flexible arrangements;
  3. Ensure workplaces foster the right culture; and
  4. Ensure that all members of the workplace are committed to implementing flexible arrangements, noting this includes flexible policies and new technologies which will allow remote work and telecommuting.

In my experience, flexible arrangements do work, with some qualifications. 

Flexible Arrangements Only Work for Certain Roles/Types of Work. 

Consider a litigation lawyer who can’t list matters on specific “work days”. He or she may not be a suitable candidate for flexible work hours whereas a more office based role without the urgency of court work (such as my area of commercial leasing) is conducive to flexible hours. 

Both the employer and the employee must be committed to making it work.

Again, consider if an employer agrees to a two-day a week, part-time role. The employee, however, is then expected to carry out that role on two defined office days (i.e. Thursday and Friday) plus answer queries and attends to urgent matters on the other days of the week. Ultimately, the employee ends up working on their non-work days and carrying out more work than they are paid for. This arrangement works much better when the employee can set their hours (within reason) in their environment over the course of a week or fortnight. This might mean a mix of office based and remote work.

Flexibility works better when both parents are involved.  

Even with flexible hours, there are times when one parent can’t make school drop off or pick up. It is helpful when parents can share this load. In my view, this is the next challenge for flexible work arrangements – getting men involved and reducing the stigma around men working flexible hours.

Boundaries are important.  

Smartphones and technology are great, as is remote working but when it means you are logged on 24/7 from your home and when you are out and about it can be a recipe for burnout. Flexible work doesn’t mean being available all of the time.  Set some boundaries and take a leaf from the French with a “right to disconnect” at appropriate times (without impacting upon your role or client service of course!). You will feel far more rested as a result.

***

Do you work flexible hours? Think I’ve missed something? Tag us on Twitter @legalvision_au and let us know.

Emma Heuston

Ask Emma a Question

If you would like further information on any of the topics mentioned in this article, please get in touch using the form on this page.