Buvette Masthead

The benefits of flexible working

Catherine Carter

According to Hillary Clinton, “women are the largest untapped reservoir of talent in the world”.

While this is undoubtedly the case, the best ways to tap into this talent is still up for debate.

The property industry gathered last week to explore how we can better capture the business benefits of flexible working – something that is critical if we are to expand the number of women in the property and construction industry beyond its current 12 per cent.

Despite more women graduating from construction courses, such as architecture and design, men still dominate the professions – partly due to the restriction of turning up for work each day on site.

However our panel of male senior industry leaders – who were all deliberately chosen because we need more men to engage with the diversity debate – agreed that more flexible workplaces are central to getting the best out of both female and male employees.

Alastair Swayn, principle director of Daryl Jackson Alastair Swayn, understands the value of flexibility. He is currently trying to “reengineer his work” down to three days a week, and has built a highly-successful architecture firm that has always focused on the “quality of work people do, rather than when they do it”.

Alastair says the modern day working world makes it easier than ever to accommodate a range of work styles and preferences – whether that’s part-time, working from home or needing occasional time off to look after sick kids.

And he points out that even the way we design offices is changing to suit this emphasis on flexibility. Even employers known for traditional hierarchies of the corner suite for the boss and cubicles for the workers — such as banks and government departments — are moving away from this model.

As employees in financial and professional services firms become increasingly mobile, these organisations are embracing hot desking and allowing staff to work some hours from home.

Government departments are also embracing flexible working. The Department of Finance’s new office on Canberra Avenue is set to establish a new benchmark in adaptability, with less floor space, fewer offices and more innovative break out spaces to encourage collaboration and team building.

Andrew Metcalfe AO says he’s seen enormous changes to the working world during his career. Now a partner with EY, Metcalfe rose to the top of the tree in the public service, and was secretary of a number of federal government departments. Andrew says workplaces have changed from being “heavily male-dominated and centred around a fixed set of working hours” to places in which successful companies understand they need to “accommodate the extraordinary diversity we see in our community and to provide flexibility to get the best out of people”.

For Andrew, the business case for workplace flexibility is clear.

“We aim to hire the very best people, and are competing with the other ‘big four’ firms, as well as with Treasury and the Reserve Bank, for example. If we aren’t providing an attractive workplace that is amenable to people’s needs — that provides the opportunity to take time off for study, travel overseas or assume parental responsibilities — they will go elsewhere,” he says.

Flexibility doesn’t always need to mean accommodating flexible working hours. Simon Butt, Chief Executive Officer of leading commercial construction firm Manteena, says flexibility can be a challenge in many construction roles.

“In most cases, our people have to be on site early – that’s just part of the job. But we try to embrace flexibility in other ways by recognising that people have family and other commitments. Accommodating those ensures better continuity with our staff, improves productivity and reduces the amount of sickies people take. In a working world where people change careers quickly, having a flexible approach helps us retain people for longer and save on replacement costs,” he says.

And these savings can be considerable. The Australian Human Resources Institute puts the cost of replacing a skilled worker at around 150 per cent of their annual salary. So, embracing any opportunity to retain good staff and reduce turnover makes smart business sense.

While the benefits of more flexible working are clear — attracting and retaining talented employees, building loyalty, ensuring continuity, encouraging diversity of thinking, and boosting productivity and profit with it — we still face challenges making it happen.

Suzanne Moulis, ‎National Vice President, Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, asked one of the most thought-provoking questions I’ve heard at an event for some time. Suzanne reminded the audience of the gap between the central business obligation to make money and the societal obligation to make a contribution to beyond the financial. As she pointed out, women have traditionally shouldered the burden of bridging this gap by delivering most of the unpaid work within the family home and through volunteering in the community. As more women enter the workforce, fewer people remain to provide those essential services, and so it is incumbent on business to step up.

How do we do this? Perhaps we need to get more serious about measuring not just business outputs, but the contributions that our work makes beyond dollars in the bank? When employees’ KPIs include contributions to society and the community, we will know we’ve entered a whole new world of work.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author

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