MEJ Masthead

Flexible employment – making it work

Emma Grey

Old-school managers still shrivel inside when a staff-member approaches with a flexible work request.

‘It can’t be done!’ is the knee-jerk reaction, closely followed by ‘Shh… What if everyone wants it?’

One of the National Employment Standards, effective since 1 January 2010, provides that employees with children under school-age, or children under 18 with a disability, have a “right to request” a flexible work arrangement.  A refusal (required in writing, within 21 days) can only be on “reasonable business grounds” and the employer must detail those reasons specifically.

Moving into the ‘Digital Age’, many workplaces still operate on Industrial Age patterns.  And with an ageing population, retiring baby-boomers, Gen Y moving into parenthood and ‘Digital Natives’ coming behind them, employers – whether they’re ready for it or not – are heading into a future dominated by ‘survival of the most flexible’.

It’s not as scary as it sounds.  Here are five long-held myths about flexible employment and tips on making it work.

Flexibility is just for working mums

Women comprise 50% of the workforce and in 65% of Australian families, both parents work.  Requests to care for children are commonplace.  Increasingly, caring for elderly parents is another key driver.

Transport and traffic problems in main centres have caused many employers to offer core work hours from 10am-4pm.  Employees work from home outside those hours, to avoid delays.

Physical and mental illness, further education opportunities, career down-sizing for work-life balance, travel and other special needs (training as an elite sportsperson, for example) are common reasons for flexible work requests.

The retention of baby-boomers and their corporate knowledge through flexible work and semi-retirement is one of the key challenges facing workplaces today.

Once one person has it, everyone will want it

Particularly in the case of part-time work – and the reduced income that accompanies it – this isn’t true.  Some employees prefer the routine and certainty of a team-based environment, where work is supervised rather than the isolation and distraction of working from home.

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, and flexibility may be as simple as staggered start-times or as complex as working from another country.

Flexibility is often requested in response to the life-cycle.  People drift into and out of it as their circumstances change.

Having a policy is not enough. There needs to be a formal process that the employee and manager will follow to ensure that a proposed flexible work arrangement is thoroughly considered. Providing more rigorous procedures when requesting a flexible work arrangement will not only ensure that the arrangement is thoroughly dissected, but will also ensure that ‘tyre kickers’ will be turned off by the work involved in negotiating a workable arrangement.

The team will resent it

With a well-managed flexible work arrangement, consideration will have been given to ‘who does what’, particularly during times when the employee isn’t at work.  The arrangement will have been communicated clearly to the team by the manager and provision will have been made to cover off key tasks (often at the suggestion of the employee, and others in the team, who know the work best).   Opportunities will have been identified for other team members to develop, by covering some tasks in what is effectively a ‘job-share’ situation.

Ideally, stakeholders will have been consulted and will have a say in how the impact will be managed.  Even some law firms (particularly since the majority of law graduates are now female) are starting to communicate more with clients about how to make this work.

Once they have a flexible work arrangement, we’re stuck with it

Flexible work usually follows a life-stage or specific situation, and is often established within a trial period.  If someone is sick, or has a young child or an elderly parent requiring care, if they’re involved in an important event outside work, or if there are unique circumstances about their location – often it’s only for a fixed term.

Employees who work flexibly, work hard.  They’re usually more focused, manage their time better and are more productive.  If the situation is managed well, their morale is higher, they’re more loyal and their better wellbeing means fewer absences.

It’s all right for other fields, but this job can’t be done flexibly

Flexible work means anything outside standard hours and location.  Some job roles can’t be done at home.  Others can’t be done with varied work hours.  However there might be an option to job-share with another employee with similar skills.

A thorough proposal will consider which tasks need to be done at work, which can be done elsewhere, which must be done during ‘standard hours’, which can be done outside of that, whether two staff members can share a task and whether the task needs to be done at all.

Even at a basic, informal level, “employers-of-choice” meet with their teams at the start of each week and ask what their needs are outside work.  Between them, the team openly juggles work requirements, while allowing staff the time they need to balance their lives.  Talented people stay in environments like this.


Emma Grey

Emma Grey is the Canberra-based author of ‘Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum’ and ‘Unrequited: Girl Meets Boy Band’. She’s director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss and co-founder of a fresh approach to time-management, My 15 Minutes. She lives just over the ACT border with her two teen daughters and young son. More about the Author

  • Silverdragon

    Thanks for this great article, Emma. I think your course on working flexibly should be mandatory for all Public Service managers, so that they understand exactly the points you have made here.

    I worked for several years in a Branch where all the EL2s were women and half worked part-time. That leadership team stayed together for about seven years under an excellent Branch Head, who highly valued family life, recognised the strengths each person brought to the role and appreciated the loyalty and focus that resulted from mutually respectful working relationships. If only more managers held similar attitudes and skills, the workplace would be a better place to be.

  • Thanks Emma, great points! I returned to work in February after six months long service leave, on four days a week. It has worked out very well for me and my employer, I have a regular day that I can schedule appointments (car service, dental appointments, electricians etc) so I’m not trying to run around and fit things into a lunch hour. It gives me time to concentrate on my writing and although I’m writing this from my sick bed at the moment, I haven’t succumbed to as many colds or illnesses or need mental health days. In return to my employer I work better and more productively. It has really changed my life!

  • Hi All, I am writing to see if any one can help me. I am looking at speaking to mothers that live in Canberra about starting there own business from home. I am also a stay at home mother and work and Live in Adelaide. Arbonne has only been in Australia for 5 years so growth is amazing. Please send me a message or email with details. Thanks Susan

    • thinkingaboutstartingownbusiness

      Hi Susan, I would love to hear from you.